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PETA’s Sexualized Ads Don’t Work

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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.

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39 Comments

  1. Rebecca Watson,

    I’m not surprised. I also bet that Peta attacking children’s games like Mario, didn’t do much to get people to take them seriously either.

    http://www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2011/11/14/peta-going-after-mario-for-his-tanooki-suit.aspx

    Not to mention their utterly offensive “holocaust on your plate” campaign, probably didn’t gain much support for their cause.

    http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/Northeast/02/28/peta.holocaust/

  2. Yeah, I have an, err, history with PETA.

    Trigger warning: Racism, terrorism, incest, animal abuse.

    As you know, for much of the 90s, animal rights activists spent time attacking Indians. They did all the usual tactics, such as acid-throwing and (against fishermen) ramming. They even found an old lady at Neah Bay, asked her for a girl’s name, named the whale the Makah killed that name, declared her a “Makah elder” (Note: “Elder” doesn’t simply carry implications of advanced age.), and then said she was against the whale hunt. I could just go on about the Makah; suffice it to say, a coalition of *actual* environmental activists and indigenous activists came about because of this behavior.

    The most common strawman argument from the animal rights types was claiming our argument was “I think hunting will keep me from molesting my daughter.” Wat? (Leaving aside who actually perpetrates sexual assaults against Indian women, seriously?) They’d also not even bother with real slogans, and just would say things like “wood [expletive deleted, but it rhymes with ‘golddigger’, according to Kanye]”.

    More recently, the Oglala Sioux Tribe opened a slaughterhouse. PETA accused it of hiring illegal immigrants, apparently on the logic that brown skin = Mexican = illegal immigrant.

    I’ve also been directed to this wonderful little turd:

    http://www.thescavenger.net/animals/on-the-right-to-hunt-by-a-native-american-vegan-768.html

    She gives away her wannabe-ness with “When I am uneasy, surrounded by furs and hides amid my own people, I reflect on the words of Chief Seattle.” No doubt the ones in that damned Earth Day special. The speech that was a transparent forgery? (Hint: There are no buffalo in the Pacific Northwest.)

    My other issue with PETA (besides their sexism and racism) is that they kill a bunch of animals. 90% of the animals they ‘rescue’ are euthanized. Seriously.

  3. I think the point of the PETA ads isn’t to make converts, it is to “other” people who are not already in the PETA cult. The whole point is to dehumanize women and everyone who is not a PETA-thrall.

    It is about making the Overton Window larger.

  4. I cringe whenever I see those PETA ads. I support animal rights, but when I talk to friends and family about these issues, they immediately think of these terrible PETA ads, and I have to spend more time distancing myself from that, before I can actually discuss the real issue.

  5. I suspect that part of the problem is that the ads, to the extent that they make a point at all, rely on begging the question, or otherwise assuming the viewer already agrees with their point. They can’t see the failure, in large part because they can’t see that they are not talking to someone who already agrees with them.

    To-wit: If you are already of the mindset that a cow or a pig is a creature of moral equivalence to a human being, then the Pamela Anderson ad makes ‘sense’–eating meat WOULD be just like carving up a human being. (Of course, just using women, and often highly sexualized images of women at that, doesn’t even have that defense–why, exactly, do we see no ads of hunky men being treated as literal ‘beefcake’, exactly?) But if you haven’t already conceded to the notion that ol’ Bessie is morally equal to Aunt Betty, then all you’re going to do is say, “Wow, that’s stupid,” and go on with your day.

    • This.

      And I would add that the effect would seem to be the opposite for those who don’t already agree with their view point. If you don’t see animals as having a moral equivalence to humans, then the ads just have the effective of “dragging women” down in the dehumanized/animal category. In other words, while I understand the theory behind the ads, they might do more to make women seem like animals, than to make animals seem like humans.

      • Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, an organization with at least four blatant lies in their name, has previously mansplained to people of color that milk is racist. Seriously? That’s nowhere near the top of my priorities. You could say *puts sunglasses on* I don’t cry over spilt milk. YEEEEAAAAHHHH!

        PETA itself has claimed the NAACP speaks in favor of more humane treatment of chickens. Wow, that’s…all kinds of racist.

  6. Don’t forget their very effective racism!
    http://ionenewsone.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/slave-traders.jpg

    If I were conspiracy minded, I would think that PETA was created by agricultural lobbyists. They’ve single-handedly given credence to the tactic of crying “They’re coming to take your pets and livestock!” whenever legislation comes up to crack down on puppy mills and corporate farms.
    (The same tactic the NRA uses to fire people up about gun control legislation)

    Counter-productive and ineffective are understatements. Undermining and causing real damage all over the place.

  7. My guess that being misogynistic assholes is the actual strategy of the leadership at PETA (which I assume is all male). The whole point is to attract a certain type of woman who revels in being treated as a sub-human object.

    Looking at how many male leaders at PETA have had sex with female followers, and looking at the power dynamics of those (I presume short-term and exploitative) relationships would be informative.

    • No, I’m afraid not.

      PeTA (I find it ironic that the e is in lowercase) was co-founded in 1980 and is still headed by Ingrid Newkirk, the Senior Vice President of Cruelty Investigations is Daphna Nachminovitch, the Senior Vice President of Communications is Lisa Lange, the Senior Vice President of Laboratory Investigations is Kathy Guillermo, and the Executive Vice President of PeTA is Tracy Reiman, all women. In fact of the top six positions at PeTA only the Senior Vice President of Media Campaigns is a man, Dan Mathews. So it not straight up male chauvinist attitudes that are allowing this.

      And while we are listing PeTA’s faults let’s not forget that they refuse to support no-kill shelters and euthanize a large amount of animals every year and they support the ALF or Animal Liberation Front as well as it’s companion organization ELF or Earth Liberation Front, which the FBI lists as terrorist organizations. There is even speculation that ALF and ELF are actually just PeTA employees though I don’t know how reliable that is.

      Overall PeTA is just a nasty piece of work.

  8. When have facts and reason ever factored into PETA’s decision making? They’re basically a cult at this point. Self promotion is far more important to them than actually getting anything accomplished. The buzz phrases are just shibboleths they use to identify one another. Like a star becoming a black hole, they’ve collapsed under the gravity of their own self involvement into a narcissitic singularity.

  9. The first time I heard about PETA was in 2007 (I don’t really participate in culture). My girlfriend at the time had one of their magazines (newsletter?). I honestly thought it was satire.

  10. I always thought PETA was silly, but I never viewed their advertisements as “dehumanizing.” Take the Pam Anderson advertisement to which you linked, which shows her we body marked up like a side of beef. The purpose of the ad is not to say that Anderson is to be eaten. It’s to say that this is what they are doing to cows. They are conveying the message that we would not do this to a human being, so we shouldn’t do this to animals either.

    We are animals, after all, and that includes Pam Anderson. Humans are animals, so to make the point that animals should NOT be consumed by depicting a human as marked up to be cut into consumable chunks is not “dehumanizing.” If anything, it’s “humanizing” animals. It’s impliedly anthropomorphizing cows, but saying that butchering them is like doing the same to a human.

    I think the ad works in a way, and while it will not convince die-hard meat eaters, it will chip away at the edges over time. It gets attention, because Pam Anderson physically commands attention. The reality of advertising is that it is almost completely about image — appearance. Putting physically gifted models in the ads makes sense because doing that tends to draw people’s attention. If they instead put an image of present day William Shatner shirtless with carved up beef lines on his skin, would that be “dehumanizing?” I don’t think it would be considered dehumanizing. Just because Pam Anderson is physically gifted doesn’t make the image dehumanizing.

    • “Just because Pam Anderson is physically gifted doesn’t make the image dehumanizing.”

      No one said that. That isn’t what is being said.

      WOMEN ARE NOT COWS. PEOPLE ARE NOT COWS.
      Yes, it IS dehumanizing.

      I AM NOT A COW.

      • In my opinion, the ad doesn’t say she is a cow. The ad is doing to a human that which we have seen done to images of cows – that is, she is marked up depicting the meat cuts in her body, just as pictures of cows are shown depicting where the cuts of beef come from. That doesn’t mean she IS a cow. It is just a way to show how awful it is to do that to cows, because we would never tolerate doing that to a human. The ad says “look at what this would be like if we did this to humans…”

      • I mean – further to my comment in response to your dehumanization comment, that’s why the ad says “all animals have the same parts.” Humans have those parts, so should we cut up humans for meat? That’s what PETA is saying.

    • Here is a POLITICIAN comparing women to farm animals:

      http://wonkette.com/466835/georgia-lawmaker-compares-women-to-farm-animals-in-anti-abortion-remarks

      Now do you see it? *Women are people. Women are not cows. Women are not animals. Comparing cows to women is comparing women to cows. I am not a fucking cow. I am a human being. There is a vast history of women being compared to inanimate objects and animals. Women are neither. Women are human beings. Cows are not human beings. Human beings are not cows. Comparing human woman to cows is dehumanizing.*

      And please note: PETA *never* (or rarely) uses men in their advertising. William Shatner? I dare you to find an example of PETA using a fat man as an example of treating animals poorly. You won’t find it. Do you know why that is? Consider that.

      ” It’s to say that this is what they are doing to cows. ”

      WOMEN ARE NOT COWS.

      There are other ways to convey the message of treating animals with respect without comparing women to cows.

      • Well, women and men are, in fact, animals. But, everyone knows they aren’t cows.

        I think PETA uses women in their ads because people, women and men, pay attention to those ads.

        I haven’t found any PETA ads that feature obese men, but I have found many that feature men, scantily clad.

        I think they use scantily clad models to get attention. That’s why women wear lettuce bikinis at PETA rallies. It gets people’s attention.

          • The PETA ad isn’t saying women are cows.

            The PETA ad is illustrating how nasty it is to carve up cows and other animals into cuts of meat, and it’s doing so by putting those same lines on a human being because people looking at it will draw the connection that if you shouldn’t be doing it to humans then you shouldn’t be doing it to other animals.

          • ******Comparing women to cows is dehumanizing******

            You have women saying this to you. LISTEN.

            Do you understand the history of comparing women to cattle and farm animals?

    • Consider this: Comparing women to animals is essentially calling women “pieces of meat” — a very old and misogynist statement.

      I *am not* a piece of meat. I am a human being.

      http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2013/women-and-meat-linked-advertising

      “The equation of women and meat, Adams argued, hurts both women and animals. In a chapter titled “The Rape of Animals, the Butchering of Women,” she explained how the two-way metaphor legitimates violence to both women and animals in one fell stroke. According to Adams, we must move beyond seeing both women and dead animals as pieces of meat.”

      I am not a cow. I am not a piece of meat. I am a human being.

    • “”Just because Pam Anderson is physically gifted doesn’t make the image dehumanizing.”

      Okay, after I stop vomiting, I’m going to point out that what you’re really talking about is the skillz of her plastic surgeon. Of course, if that’s what you call “physical gifted” (commence moar vomiting), then I shall continue vomiting.

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