December 07, 2011


If you’ve ever felt ambivalent about PETA’s provacative advertising tactics, you are not alone. On the other hand, during a 92nd Street Y panel discussion in New York last week titled “Naked Ambition: Extreme Marketing for a Cause”, PETA Senior Vice President Dan Mathews made a convincing case for the value of sensational marketing, even infamy, in an increasingly cluttered world of media. The panel also included New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott, Newsweek and Daily Beast celebrity columnist Lloyd Grove, and PETA model and activist Cornelia Guest.

Mathews has shaped PETA’s reputation as a ruthless force among animal rights organizations, and has also been instrumental in turning PETA into a vehicle for celebrity endorsements, particularly their “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur” campaign. Another recent, far less mainstream ad featured a shark eating a human leg with the tagline “Payback is Hell, Go Vegan”, following a shark attack near the Gulf of Mexico.

Lloyd Grove questioned the effectiveness of such a polarizing approach, and cited the “darker side” of PETA’s messaging, including a past comparison between industrial chicken production and Jews being sent to death camps.

Mathews claims that the organization’s often outrageous tactics were necessary to draw attention to an overlooked issue, and identified PETA as “not just a charity, but a pressure group” that needs to be “as ruthless as the industry we’re targeting."

“There are many organizations that do what we do in a nice way. We’ll be the ones you don’t want to bring home to mother,” said Mathews.

Stuart Elliott commented on PETA’s pioneering use of “shockvertising” and acknowledging the organization’s positive impact over the years. He also commented on PETA’s influence on “driving up the volume” of this kind of advertising among marketers from all sectors, each vying to outdo the last provocative campaign.

“They count on people like me to write stories about the outrage that ensues.”

Despite the criticism levied at PETA, Mathews says the“victories are piling up.” He cited PETA’s impact on changing the legal landscape, including its success in securing number of felony cruelty-to-animals charges against factory farms, and negotiation of increased animal welfare standards with both Burger King and Wendy’s fast food chains.

Mathews acknowledge that sensational campaigns may run the risk of “cheapening” the cause.

“We trivialize things and I’m sorry for that sometimes. But look at our site and you will see all the serious programs that we offer.”

Click the image to watch a recent PETA ad.
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