Can PETA Promote Veganism Without Being Gross?

The problem with PETA is that it knows that sex, controversy, and Internet rage sell.

Aug 9, 2013 at 10:30am | Leave a comment

Fun fact: I used to be vegan.

I was vegetarian through much of high school and vegan in college and beyond, before I was finally done in by a boy and a scrumptious roast boar (isn't that everyone's ultimate downfall?). I still don't eat a lot of meat, but I guzzle cheese by the truckload, so, you know, there goes that whole vegan thing.

Which isn't to say that I don't care about animals or environmental issues; I disagree with the claim that you have to be vegan or vegetarian to care about changes needed to the food system, animal rights, and issues surrounding the humane management of food animals. It does mean that I don't have a lot of tolerance for annoying vegetarians/vegans, and my interest in PETA-related shenanigans is basically nil.

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Here's PETA comparing pig slaughter to genocide under the Khmer Rouge. 

Photo credit: Elvert Barnes.

Here's the thing: PETA's whole mission is being inflammatory and obnoxious. They deliberately design campaigns to get people all riled up, and ride that sweet, sweet wave of publicity. That's their goal. Apparently they seem to think this helps animals or something, even though the kneejerk response to a gross PETA campaign is often “I'm going to go eat some BACON!”

So, I generally ignore them, because I don't want to give them any of my time, and I don't want my irritation and rage at their campaigns to fuel free publicity for them, or to shake my beliefs that nonhuman animals are deserving of respect and fair treatment. But every now and then, I'm stirred out of my usual “Do not feed the PETA” stance by something especially bad they've rolled out, because it's just so atrocious that I can't let it pass without comment.

Which brings me to their latest campaign, featuring 16-year-old musician Samia Najimy Finnerty posing with her guitar and the tagline “Vegans go all the way.” PETA describes her as their youngest pinup. Excuse me while I vomit. 

Shockingly, she's wearing clothes, and by “clothes,” I don't mean “artfully arranged produce.” Apparently PETA thought that showing a naked or close-to-it child might not be the best call, which actually kind of surprised me, given that they don't seem to have any limits usually. It's possible that Finnerty insisted on wearing clothes for the campaign, in which case, more power to you, my friend.

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Oooh, EDGY, PETA.

Photo credit: Arturo de Albornoz.

PETA, of course, has a long history of heavily sexualized campaigns, since it's aware of the old adage that “sex sells.” Most of those campaigns feature young, conventionally attractive women, and are intended to imply both that becoming vegan or vegetarian will make you hot and sexy, and that vegetarianism in general is sexy.

Look at these nubile young bodies, these ads say, exploiting the bodies of women, and connect them with the delights of eating vegetarian. PETA isn't alone among so-called progressive organizations when it comes to objectifying women to make a political point.

So it's not a surprise to see the organization using a saucy tagline; “Vegans go all the way” is, of course, a reference to sex even though it can be neatly covered with the claim that it's about committing to going all the way when it comes to not eating any animal products. This is what PETA does.

But that changes pretty radically when the model for the campaign is 16.

16-year-olds have sex. But I'm uncomfortable with seeing them sexualized in advertising campaigns, especially given the pressure on women and girls in this society. Your body shouldn't be public property and an object of consumption at any age, but let's not forget that people who are 16 haven't reached the age of consent. And are often in high school. There's a reason there are laws in place prohibiting sexual activity with minors, and there's a reason why this campaign is making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Clearly, Finnerty has agency here. Being 16 doesn't mean you don't have a brain and can't make decisions for yourself. She cares passionately about animals and has unfortunately chosen to support PETA to further the cause of animal welfare. Undoubtedly she had some say in what she wore, how she posed, and the tagline that went with the campaign. Maybe she even gets a kick out of the double entendre in the tagline.

As an individual young woman, Finnerty gets to make her own choices and I don't want to take her power away, but I'm also viewing this campaign within a larger context. And that context is that of a deeply misogynistic society where women like Finnerty are raped and videotaped, exploited in advertising campaigns that rely on the premise that a teenager should be viewed as a sex object, and called sluts for wearing short skirts.

Lexi Nisita at Refinery29 asks if this campaign will be the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to PETA and its ridiculous campaigns, but I don't think it will be. Like all the other “provocative” (offensive) PETA campaigns, it will generate a firestorm of angry commentary that will funnel a bunch of traffic in the direction of the organization, and then nothing will happen. PETA won't change its ways because it will have gotten precisely what it wanted, and people will go back to passively waiting for the next offensive campaign for them to get riled up about.

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Sexualized images of dead women in advertising campaigns aren't at all problematic!

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi

The problem with PETA is that it knows that sex, controversy, and Internet rage sell. Long before other organizations and companies were taking advantage of the tempest in a teapot tendency of Internet communities, PETA was out there producing inflammatory material and basking in the results. They know exactly what they are doing, and precisely what they wanted to do with this campaign, and they're accomplishing it.

It's astoundingly hypocritical for an organization that claims to care about the exploitation of nonhuman animals to routinely exploit young women, and now girls, but it's certainly not going to stop until its members start to protest. So the real question here isn't how the general (and often PETA-hating) public should respond to these ads, but: What the hell is wrong with PETA members?