People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was founded in 1980 and has since become the most recognizable animal protection group in the world. They deserve a lot of credit for almost single-handedly putting animal rights issues on the radar of the U.S. public. As concern for animals becomes more mainstream, however, much of PETA's public education work seems outdated and potentially even counterproductive. Has PETA outlived its usefulness and/or has its approach to generating media tarnished the image of its fellow animal advocates? Whatever the answer, it's a question worth asking.
Let me first state that I have tremendous respect for what PETA has accomplished over the nearly 30 years of the organization’s history. I have both friends and colleagues who work or have worked for PETA. The organization does some of the best work in the animal protection movement, including its efforts to convince corporations to demand that suppliers treat farm animals more humanely and its outreach to youths through Peta2.com. My issue is with the organization’s media and “public education” tactics, and its apparent unwillingness to evaluate and refine those approaches.
PETA is far and away the most well-known name in the world of animal protection. As demonstrated by this graphic in one of my recent blog posts, PETA dominates the mindscape of the U.S. public. However, both research that HRC has conducted and anecdotal evidence suggest that opinions of PETA are mixed at best. The organization is an intensely polarizing force in the animal protection movement and they are arguably responsible for the belief held by some that animal advocates are “extreme” or “crazy.”
I would argue that people’s attitudes toward PETA are more negative than they would probably like to believe. I personally do not think that PETA manipulates images or that they spend so little time helping animals, but it’s the perception that matters. When it comes to media tactics, PETA clearly goes with whatever will attract attention and they throw everything they have at the press. If something sticks, PETA counts it as a victory regardless whether the media coverage is positive or negative; if it doesn’t stick, then they simply move on to the next idea.
This was probably a smart approach 25 years ago, when animal protection issues received very little media coverage or attention from the public. As more people begin to take animal issues seriously, however, this approach is quickly becoming obsolete and potentially even destructive. Animal advocates need to establish credibility to continue moving animal rights from the fringe to the mainstream, and in some respects we’re fighting against PETA’s inertia. If we want animal issues to be taken seriously, we should probably stop with the anti-fur demos featuring naked women and moderate our use of celebrities. Tactics like these are transparent at best and repulsive at worst.
Of course, no animal protection group does everything right, but most of the large ones are at least willing to evaluate their own efforts. When it comes to media outreach, PETA seems not to have changed much over the past 30 years, while the world around it has changed significantly. I would argue that it’s time for some new approaches and I would say this to the good folks at PETA: “Thank you for the work you have done for animals. But please understand that not all media is created equally. On behalf of animal advocates everywhere, please take a more thoughtful approach to generating attention. As the most visible animal rights group in the world, we need you to help us become a credible and respected voice for animals.”