Does Sex Sell Veganism?
A Toe To Toe Match With PETA's PR Team
As a teenager, first learning about animal rights, I came across a picture of a naked woman, with face out of view, red paint dividing her body parts, tagging them with their “meat labels.” It caught my interest. I printed it out and kept it on my wall. I liked the strong visual, portraying a woman’s body as a object, the way we do our meals. It served as a reminder that animal’s bodies are more than slabs.
I then learned about feminism. At first it seemed like angry people trying to pull men down, that issues for women were already addressed. The more feminists I met the more obvious it became that sexism exists and affects not just women who were far away in oppressive regimes, but me and my friends, co-workers and role models, everyday. I learned that every woman is taught to be afraid and not to wear clothes that are “asking for it”. As the catcalls got louder, as my own objectivation became clearer, I took that picture down.
Sexism has permeated so much of our culture, so why is it propagandized by organizations trying to make a difference in the world? I see women being used as objects and billboards for the cause. Their nudity, like glitter, an eye catcher being used to bring up thoughts of sex, not animals or the issues they are facing. I question, does anyone decide to eat vegan, not wear fur, or change their lifestyle in any way, because they saw a sexy ad? As we’ve been told so many times; sex sells! Right?
Studies have shown that sex does sell, when you are selling a sex product or sexy product, not a long term decision. A Business Insider Article from 2012 shared that people are 10% less likely to buy a product if has been marketed with sex inappropriately. It works with impulsive items like buying a magazine, vodka, or that steak. When marketing sex, one is appealing to a primal part of the brain, where blood flow redirects away from higher functioning processes like critical thinking. How does one critically decide to alter their lifestyle in a huge way because of impulse decision making?
When I originally wrote an article on the subject in 2015, PETA disagreed with this conclusion, PETA’s Communications Manager Heather Carlson stated in an email,
“PETA’s purpose is to stop animal suffering, and we use all available opportunities to reach millions of people with powerful messages in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and of course action. Our thought-provoking demonstrations, website features, public service announcements, and videos get the word out on the airwaves and in the public eye in ways that no amount of money spent on traditional advertising methods ever could. The proof is in the numbers.”
She goes on to say, that “more than 1 million people watched PETA’s banned “Veggie Love”(probably NSFW) Super Bowl ad, and 333,000 of those viewers went on to watch PETA’s hard-hitting expose of the meat industry. Many thousands also ordered a vegan starter kit.”
You may ask why was this ad banned? It shows women in their underwear seducing vegetables with a tagline that says, “studies show that vegetarians have better sex.” Then later encourages the viewer to, “Go Veg.”
The PETA website says that, “apparently NBC has something against girls who love their veggies.”
PETA shared the list of NBC’s concerns with pride, “licking pumpkin, touching her breast with her hand while eating broccoli, pumpkin from behind between legs, rubbing pelvic region with pumpkin, screwing herself with broccoli (fuzzy), asparagus on her lap appearing as if it is ready to be inserted into vagina…”
Never mind that my reaction as I read that is to take a break from asparagus, it seems like marketing with sex inappropriately for the product, a vegan lifestyle.
"I believe PETA could make thought provoking ads or actions that humanized women as well as the animals they are trying to save."
In 2016, Vodmadlife.com did a survey of 726 vegans in Australia, they asked people’s motivations for going vegan and only 2.5% said public activism, with most people saying they are influenced by friends/family, social media, or a documentary. As I combed through the results, nothing sexy came up. It sounded like compassion, and facts are what change people’s minds in practice.
What was the First Thing that got you Interested in Veganism?
In 2015 PETA pointed to their “Boyfriend Went Vegan” (“BWVAKTBOOM”) YouTube video, which had more than 3.2 million views and BWVAKBOOM.com received more than 300,000 hits in just two days online.
In the ad you see a young woman wearing a neck brace “because her boyfriend went vegan” and “knocked the bottom out of” her. You can see her wincing in pain as she walks down the street. They have since doubled down on this campaign, with one woman toting that she has had three concussions since her boyfriend went vegan.
They seem to have made a connection between choosing a vegan lifestyle and becoming more violent or aggressive in the bedroom. The extent of the injuries portrayed imply someone taking sex too far and perhaps not listening to the woman as she is in intense pain. In light of the #MeToo campaign and learning more and more about consent, I could understand one concussion if both parties are really having a great time and take pleasure in pain, but three would mean that both parties needs are not being met. The woman’s safety is valued less than the newly formed vegan’s sexual appetite. This kind of marketing is dangerous as it justifies the common excuse of, “I couldn’t help myself.” PETA values their message of animal advocacy above respecting women.
In 2015, PETA stated that, “no matter what a person thinks of public nudity, it gets people talking about animal protection issues,” pointing to spike in traffic on their site. I’m skeptical this leads to an investment in a lifestyle choice that is, so ethics or health based, as vegans shared in that Australian survey many reasons for going vegan and “better sex” was not one of them. To support animal rights while disempowering women is fruitless, and hurtful. Without results, getting people talking is not enough of a justification to objectify women, further participating in a culture that fosters sexual assault and harassment.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to PETA again and asked about how they deal with harassment or catcalls at public events, how their marketing campaigns have changed since I spoke to them in 2015 and what their stance is on objectification of women. I was excited to receive a reply from an unnamed PETA representative. It did throw me off guard to read that they were hesitant to reply because, “it seems as though you're going into this piece with your mind already made up about PETA's campaigns—as was clear from your 2015 article for T.O.F.U. magazine on the same subject—so we wonder whether you truly want the answers to these questions.” This felt as if they were implying I was close minded when really I do want to dive deeper into the debate and was excited to see PETA actively working to challenge my notions of sexuality and marketing.
As the biggest animal rights activist group I want them to engage in the discussion of progress and how we go about it and have no doubts that is why it is important to critique their approach.
They stated that, “PETA is firmly against the objectification of women. We believe that both women and men should be able to use their bodies in order to make social statements. It can't be called "objectification" when people, driven by their beliefs, choose to use their own bodies to convey a message. Wouldn't those who censor them for doing so be guilty of disrespect and repression?” The representative shared that PETA is largely run, directed and founded by women who are choosing to use their bodies in this way. I grew frustrated as I felt painted into a straw man argument. I am not calling for censorship, but empowerment! I believe it can be called objectification when a large organization pays for a photographer, for online boosting of those photos, and commodifies the image of a woman, and when you are placing a gaze of sexual desire and nothing else except the product you are marketing - veganism.
In a patriarchal society, women have been taught to objectify themselves and each other, as I did as a teenager placing that picture on my wall. When we are sexualized at a young age, interrupted constantly, and not given credit for work done, we are internalizing a message that the only way to be seen is with our bodies, in that process we begin to reduce ourselves to nothing more than a thing to be seen not heard.
As PETA stated in our exchange, their “protests aren't about what the demonstrators may be wearing—be it a lettuce-leaf bikini or a full-length winter coat—but what will best inspire people to think critically about animal abuse and exploitation.” I beckon if it is not about what they are wearing then what is the point of a lettuce-leaf bikini, except to bring on a sexualized gaze? It feels like a lack of confidence in the message, that animal activists need the lettuce-leaf bikini to be seen or listened to, this seems like a belief that women will not be engaged in a critical conversation unless their beauty, bodies, or sexuality captures someone’s attention. “Our supporters choose to participate in our colorful actions because they want to do something that makes people stop and pay attention—which, amid today's hustle and bustle, is not always an easy feat.”
“We are feminists but not prudes, and it's important to recognize that sexy does not mean sexist”.
I do not see how PETA is actively feminist, when I asked how they handle catcalling or harassment the response was, that “while the vast majority of people are respectful of PETA's message, harassment of individuals exercising their freedom of speech and expression to help save animals is nothing new, and it certainly isn't limited to women.”
Yes, I firmly believe this is true, and the people responsible for harassment are those who using catcalls not those wearing provocative clothing. No one should tell them to cover up, but as an organization PETA seems to be dropping the ball in protecting and empowering their volunteers. I frankly don’t care if all of PETA’s ads were of naked women, but I wish it included more than just the message of sex and animal action, I believe PETA could make thought provoking ads or actions that humanized women as well as the animals they are trying to save.
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