Linking cow’s milk to autism. Simulating a human barbeque. Comparing animal slaughter to ethnic cleansing during the Holocaust. These are just a few of the marketing campaigns championed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in the past decade to discourage people from eating meat and using animal products. 

The animal rights organization, founded in 1980, has long been a polarizing force. The group first gained notoriety for publicly shaming fur-wearing celebrities and designers like Anna Wintour and Tom Ford. In 1995, a PETA member dropped a dead racoon on Wintour’s lunch plate, and a decade later, another volunteer smashed a tofu pie in the legendary editor-in-chief’s face. While Ford was standing outside of a fashion conference in 1999, an unidentified protestor, thought to be affiliated with PETA, threw tomato juice at the designer. Many have criticized the group for its extreme protesting actions, but the biggest blow to the organization’s reputation came a few years ago when the Washington Post reported that most of the animals in their custody were euthanized. The news prompted heavy public backlash, with many questioning PETA’s commitment to animal welfare. The group defended their actions, maintaining that the deaths were “mercy killings” and only carried out when deemed to be in the animal’s best interest. 

Most recently, PETA came under fire after publishing a series of tweets denouncing Google for its February 22 Doodle of the day, commemorating Steve Irwin on the anniversary of his death. The post received an overwhelmingly negative response as users pushed back against the organization for targeting  the famed Australian conservationist. Several critics noted that they were PETA supporters, but the group’s attack on Irwin, a figure widely lauded for educating the public about animal behavior and promoting conservation efforts, was irresponsible. 

PETA certainly does not regret insulting the Irwin family. About a week ago, the group tweeted a still from an episode of The Tonight Show during which Robert Irwin, Steve Irwin’s son, was a guest. The junior Irwin brought a mandrill monkey, giant millipede and baby miniature horse with him. The post urged Jimmy Fallon to discontinue having wild animals on the show.

Trumpian Techniques 

Professor Russell Neuman, a leading media scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, pointed out that PETA’s campaigning tactics and rhetorical style are similar to the techniques used by President Trump to rile up his supporters. 

“What PETA is doing is what Donald Trump does, which is playing to his base,” Neuman says. “He doesn't care what the others think.” At Trump rallies, it’s clear that his supporters take great pride in the fact that liberals and blue states are outraged by the president’s actions. Similarly, the notion that non-vegans or those who are not particularly concerned about animal rights would be offended by PETA’s content is one of the group’s main goals. 

The current zeitgeist of polarization is reflected in the more extreme and divisive language that Trump and PETA both use, Neuman explains. “The key concept is demonizing the other side, which is very central to Trump's approach.” He has repeatedly relied on name-calling to demean and discredit his opponents. In 2017, he dubbed Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida, “Wacky Congresswoman Wilson.” The following year he referred to Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who accused the president of having an affair with her, as “horseface.” The New York Times released a comprehensive list of the people, places and things Trump has insulted on twitter since he announced his candidacy; the list was most recently updated on February 20. Although PETA offers fewer examples of name-calling, the group also employs this strategy, referring to those who eat meat as “flesh-eaters.”

In many of its campaigns and public protests, PETA relies on denigrating comparisons to vilify organizations whose actions it does not agree with. The group has likened the American Kennel Club, which hosts the annual Westminster Dog Show, to the Klu Klux Klan, claiming the show’s purebred-only policy is similar to the KKK’s alt-right ideologies. In 2008, PETA purchased a burial plot next to the grave of KFC’s Colonel Sanders as part of a publicity stunt. The engraving on their headstone spelled out “KFC TORTURES BIRDS.” 


Bête Noire

Neuman has studied polarization in the American media through a historical lens going back to the 19th Century. He has found that highly disruptive politics has its roots in the very earliest days of U.S. democracy. Making fun of and disparaging your opposition are not new techniques. In fact, PETA is following in the footsteps of many factions that have sought to garner support for their particular cause by inciting outrage from the enemy, while at the same time inspiring praise from its base. 

Each of these organizations and/or public figures picked a certain object or group of people they believed to be threatening at the time to fight against. This person or thing that one particularly dislikes is called a ‘bête noire’ coming from the french phrase meaning “black beast.” 

For the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, their bête noire was Catholicism. For Senator Joseph McCarthy, his bête noire was communism. “The thematic that is historically consistent throughout American history and European and Latin American history is to find a bête noire,” says Neuman. In today’s political climate, right-wing voters overwhelmingly feel most threatened by migration and technological change leading to unemployment. Thus, Trump focuses on enacting policies aimed at tackling these specific concerns and largely blaming democrats for the existence of such issues. 

Non-political movements also have a targeted bête noire. For example, Yankees fans have always decried Red Sox fans, and vice versa. Rooting for your team and yelling at the other team is part of the excitement of going to a baseball game, Neuman notes. This same energy is present at political rallies. For PETA, the opposition is people and companies who eat meat, wear or use animal products, or in any other way treat animals in a capacity that PETA thinks is harmful. 

Neuman explains that defining a clear enemy to lay into is a key component in mobilizing supporters and contributors. So, it makes sense that the threshold of ‘how much is too much’ is determined by a group’s loyal base. Trump and PETA have been criticized by their supporters in several instances for straying from their designated mission. However, it appears that neither party has received enough resistance from their base to lead them to change their tactics. 


PETA’s Response

PETA believes that their dramatic protesting actions and social media content is necessary to catalyze change. 

“We do want to incite outrage and elicit an emotional response,” says Joel Bartlett, PETA’s VP of Marketing. “We are doing this on purpose.” He notes that everyone has different boundaries. What may be offensive to one person is not necessarily as hurtful to another. The animal rights group actively posts material that they hope will lead viewers to rethink their beliefs.  

When asked about the Steve Irwin tweets, Bartlett asserted that PETA has an obligation to speak up against the zoologist’s damaging actions. “Most people recognize that wild animals should not be held up,” Bartlett says. “The images that Google used were showing animal abuse. [The tweet] was imperative because that should not be glossed over.” He notes that PETA does not shy away from the truth, even if it provokes a negative reaction. Despite being dismissed by many as unnecessarily over-the-top, the group’s tactics are imperative in making the public aware of the cruelty perpetrated against animals, says Bartlett. If all it took was telling people about the abuse taking place, then the organization wouldn’t use these intense techniques. “People don’t want to think about animals being abused. It’s PETA’s responsibility to make people think about it.”

Bartlett makes a distinction between PETA and politicians like Trump who also use controversial tactics to further their agenda. “The difference between PETA and a politician, is that we aren’t trying to win a popularity contest. We don’t care if people don’t like us.” 

He credits social media with helping the organization to make important changes in the past few years. The group’s media activity and campaigning actions, combined with CNN’s Blackfish documentary, played a role in leading SeaWorld’s to end its Orca shows and breeding program. Bartlett added that some of PETA’s content is lighter and meant to toe the line of making something relatable, while leading people to question their normalized behaviors. For instance, the group published a list of ‘animal friendly’ idioms last year, encouraging people to replace phrases like “bring home the bacon” with “bring home the bagels.” 


The Fight For Relevance 

Neuman suggests that another motivating factor behind PETA’s radical tactics may be a desire to stand out from other activist groups. 

As scientists warn that we are nearing irreversible levels of global warming, a majority of Americans are concerned about safeguarding the environment. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 56 percent of U.S. adults think that environmental protection should be a top priority for the government; that number is up from 41 percent in 2009. 

With the rising prevalence of climate change as a central public concern, environmental groups are gaining popularity and financial support. In the past five years, the Conservation and Human Rights Organizations industry grew by 4.1 percent to reach an annual revenue of $34 billion last year, as reported by IBISWorld. The Animal Rescue Shelters industry grew by 7.2 percent during the same time period, however, the industry’s 2019 reported revenue is only $3 billion so far. PETA may be feeling threatened by the emerging relevance of other social issues, Neuman notes. “Public attention has shifted away from them because there are so many other things going on. So to get attention, they've got to yell louder or be more extreme,” he says. “If there was a very moderate and cautious and careful lobbying group for eating vegetables and avoiding meat, they wouldn’t be likely to get contributions because they're just being too damn reasonable.” 

Although PETA has been success for much longer than many similarly radical movements, Neuman highlights the fact that historically, extremely polarizing media campaigns do not last long. Typically, the issues addressed by radical groups have intervals of public attention before the organization disbands itself or attention to the cause lapses. In the case of Senator McCarthy, his position as a leading figure of the democratic world was short-lived. His reputation quickly collapsed following a well-known exchange between the senator and attorney Joseph Welch, during which Welch delivered the famous line, “Have you left no sense of decency?” With McCarthy’s fall from grace, the strength of the anti-communist movement slowly deflated. Three years later McCarthy died of issues associated with alcoholism. 

While the current fervor surrounding veganism and environmentally-friendly diets persists, PETA will probably retain its place as a prominent activist group. Until the group’s patrons call for the organization to roll-back some of its more extreme rhetoric and marketing tactics, it’s unlikely that PETA will change its techniques. 

PETA doesn’t care if the Crocodile Hunter was your favorite childhood TV show. No one is off-limits.