I'm a vegetarian, and have been for a few years now. Which is probably why I find PETA's ads more offensive than most people do - I actually agree with most of their goals.
The problem with their ads is that they're stuck in the infantile phase where they're still trying to shock people instead of make any sort of coherent message. They shock, get earned media, and then there's something completely unrelated at the other end that people aren't likely to be listening to at that point.
After the jump are some of the most problematic of their ads, in my humble opinion. To the right is not a PETA ad that I find offensive, per se, but one that exemplifies the larger problem with PETA's advocacy: focusing on shaming people for individual lifestyle choices instead of working to change society or increase protection for animals through legislation. We like to think that we each have the power to change the world, but we really don't. One person not eating meat any more isn't going to prevent climate change, and pretending like someone can eat a tofu burger (while they continue to exploit the environment for everything else they want) and that'll have a noticeable impact on the environment.
Anyway, they do know how to shock. So did Tom Green and Marilyn Manson. And I suppose it's important to keep in mind all the offensive ads PETA didn't make....
10. Don't let your dog be like Octomom
After all the shaming Octomom received for having too many kids while not having a job, which was an extension of anxiety around undeserving people having too many kids and then using all our tax dollars to buy them Nintendo grumble grumble, PETA paid her to put their ad in her lawn. Comparing her to a cat in heat. Actually, the implication is more that she's worse than a cat in heat.
9. Dog breeding is like Hitler
Godwin's Law! Which means PETA loses this debate. So I have to buy a dog from a breeder. Or something.
8. Women are meat
No real animal rights message here, other than: "Look at this cut up woman! She's wearing skimpy clothes, is all tied up, and is bleeding! Also, some silly wordplay."
7. Lose weight by going vegetarian!
Selling ineffective ways to lose weight isn't just the domain of Suzanne Somers, late night informercials, and spam. PETA also does it! Did you know that going vegetarian is an easy way to lose weight that doesn't involve a real diet or exercise?
There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan foods that aren't healthy, like fries, candy, and lots of packaged pastries. I've been vegetarian for years now but my weight's gone up and down. In fact, I gained a lot of weight the year I went 100% vegan.
Does that mean that eating meat makes people lose weight? No, it just means that America's obesity epidemic is a lot more complicated than one personal decision people make. The equation is snake oil; if PETA were actually concerned with obesity there are lots of other solutions to that problem they could advocate for. But I'm not holding my breath.
6. Dressing up as the Klan at the Westminster Dog Show
You know, I'm sure my first thought if I saw the KKK pamphleting at an event would be to go up and learn about their message. PETA's VP said that the protest was against the American Kennel Club's "fetish for body image," which is rich considering the next ad on the list.
5. Fat shaming for animals
I had to separate out this category, because it's more than just telling people that they'll lose weight easily if they go vegetarian - it's about making fun of people who are fat. And there's no group of people Americans like to make fun of more than fat people.
While the message about meat consumption might be indirect and hard to understand, the message inviting people to hate fat people is pretty clear. It's almost like that's the real point of these ads....
4. The sexy woman ads
The mainstay of PETA ads, which generally feature a sexy (usually) white woman and some tiny message about vegetarianism next to her. They produce so many of these ads that the following examples aren't anywhere near exhaustive.
As anyone in advertising knows, sex sells, but that's usually to make people part with their money. When it comes to making personal sacrifices? And does comparing women to meat (in that they're both for consumption) really make people think twice about eating animal products?
Have these ads convinced anyone to go vegetarian? I'm going to put myself in the "doubt it" category, but I'm sure they get attention to PETA. And that's any nonprofit corporation's goal, isn't it?
As I said above, not all the women in these ads are white. Not when they're talking about exotic animals!
3. Eating meat is like lynching
Dr. James Cameron, found of the Black Holocause Museum, had this to say about the "Are Animals the New Slaves?" campaign:
"They may have treated us like animals back then, but there is no way we should be compared to animals today," he said. "You cannot compare the suffering of human beings or the suffering that I experienced to the suffering of an animal."
PETA responded by saying: "Generally speaking, mustn't rhinos think that rhino suffering is more important than vervet monkey suffering and vervet monkeys think that their suffering is more important than songbird suffering?" Funny how the animal of choice was the monkey.
2. You know what's fun to watch? Violence against women!
And PETA's, of course, not below using anything it thinks will attract people's attention to move its message. But sometimes instead of women just posing for their ads, they choose to act out violence against them. The best reading of this ad is "Animal cruelty is as bad as violence against women." The worst is "Look at this hot chick getting killed? Does that titillate you? Also, don't wear fur." The most likely one is "Don't be a stupid, fur-wearing bitch like this woman."
1. The way we treat animals is the Holocaust
This Godwin's Law violation got declared an "offense against human dignity" by the German government last year after several Jewish organizations filed suit. PETA responded that the point was "discrimination based on any difference between living beings" is what caused both the Holocaust and animal cruelty. It's funny that they don't make that same connection in any of their other ad campaigns.
None of these has been censored by a government other than the last one, to my knowledge. And I'm not advocating censorship. The best response to bad speech is more speech, and I usually fall on the side of people being allowed to open their mouths and make a fool of themselves in front of everyone if that's their choice. It only makes people hate them more.
The problem for me is that I agree with a large part of their advocacy and wish that they weren't giving animal rights advocates such a bad name. I suppose the lesson to take from their ads isn't that animal rights activists are sexist, racist, fat-phobes, but that nonprofit corporations that based their advocacy on using star power to make people make better lifestyle choices are so frivolous from the start that they aren't likely to have much of a commitment to social justice.