I’m a supporter of animal rights who eats a mostly vegetarian diet (I occasionally eat fish). I support organizations like the Humane Society and the SPCA, and I would support PETA if they didn’t make a habit of lying, misrepresenting scientific data, and using images of dehumanized scantily clad and nude women to get money and attention.
Consider, for instance, this Pamela Anderson ad (NSFW), in which the star’s body is marked up with the names of cuts of beef. This is par for the course in PETA’s marketing: a woman’s body is made the equivalent of dead meat, quite literally and blatantly turning her into an object to be consumed. Even more (purposely) shocking is the ad showing a woman cut in half and hanging from a meat hook (NSFL), while wearing a low-cut camisole for some reason.
When I was in college pursuing a bachelor of science in communication, many of my professors were industry professionals. I cannot tell you how many times it was beaten into me that sex does not sell. Along with celebrity endorsements, blatant sex was considered a tired and ineffectual way to gain attention — something the client would inevitably beg for, but which we were to talk them out of as best we could, in favor of using persuasion strategies that were actually proven to work.
So I’m not surprised to see this paper published in PLOS ONE back in December: When Sex Doesn’t Sell: Using Sexualized Images of Women Reduces Support for Ethical Campaigns. The researchers in the study specifically used PETA ads to see whether or not their use of objectified, dehumanized women would attract or repel people from their cause. The title gives away the result: repelled. Definitely repelled.
There are a few interesting components to the study – for one, the researchers differentiated between arousal, objectification, lack of credibility, and dehumanization. Sexualized imagery can cause all those things, but it was specifically the dehumanization that correlated with the loss of support for PETA’s cause. So for instance, a man could be aroused by an ad, but that alone didn’t turn him away from the cause that was being advertised. That only happened when the woman in the ad was dehumanized, as measured by a series of “uniquely human” traits, like being capable of thought. (This point is particularly important. I found this study via my pal Carrie Poppy’s Facebook page, where Sean Faircloth, formerly of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, argued that there’s nothing “unethical about some pretty woman.” He is correct. This study is not about the mere existence of a pretty woman, and it specifically absolves simple arousal as a cause for concern. The study is about dehumanization, which is strongly correlated to sexual objectification, and the study links to several other sources that show how objectification and dehumanization contribute to violence against women and other ethical concerns.)
The same was true for objectification. Both sexual ads and non-sexual ads objectified the women in them, but the sexual ads dehumanized the women in a way that resulted in decreased support. Objectified women were also judged as lacking credibility, but that alone didn’t account for a drop in support – only dehumanization did that.
The other interesting characteristic of this paper is that it is the first to show a link between the dehumanization of women and unethical behavior unrelated to gender and sex. Many feminists have made this point in the past, so it’s interesting to see a study that supports the assertion. I hope we see more research in the area, despite the fact that it will probably do little to convince the people at PETA or the men who constantly argue that the continued objectification of women is no cause for concern.
Featured image is the least offensive PETA ad I could find that would still illustrate the point of this post.