Recently, food politics has almost overtaken the “green” revolution as the latest hot-button social issue. From Michael Pollan’s best-sellers to First Lady Michelle Obama’s obesity initiative, everyone is paying attention to their food and where it comes from. This obsession has, of course, turned our attention back to where it all begins: animals. Enter People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its newest animal rights ad campaign.
The premise of the campaign, illustrated by ads starring a variety of nude celebrities, is that vegetarianism is cool and sexy. On the surface, this is a great marketing strategy. Everyone knows that sex sells, so PETA’s approach of shocking viewers with nudity and sexuality instead of bloody images of dismembered animals could drastically change the group’s image from threatening and gross to appealing and chic. However, this time PETA crossed the line by exploiting women in order to fight the exploitation of animals.
The PETA ads feature a series of celebrities – actress Eva Mendes, Playboy Playmate Holly Madison, and musician Dave Navarro, to name a few – using their naked bodies to encourage a meatless lifestyle. In addition to the print ads, PETA also developed a television commercial that was intended to run during this year’s Superbowl but was banned due to its racy content. The commercial, titled “Veggie Love,” begins like a Victoria’s Secret ad with a group of sexy women disrobing down to their lacy lingerie, as 80s hair-band rock music wails in the background. However, things really get steamy when the women begin touching themselves seductively with pumpkins, asparagus, broccoli, and other assorted produce. Across the screen, a message ascends: “Studies show that vegetarians have better sex.”
Unlike the TV ad, PETA uses both men and women in its print ads, but there is a noticeable difference between the ways in which the sexes are presented. The men, unlike the women, are either not fully nude, or, if they are, they are not in the foreground. For example, the series of ads for the “Ink Not Mink” campaign features tattooed men (mostly athletes), such as Gilbert Arenas, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carey Hart, Jamie Bamber, and Ami James. These men, while shirtless, are all wearing pants, shorts, or underwear, and many of them are only shot from the waist up. In another ad for this same campaign, Mario Barth is fully clothed, exposing just his tattooed arms. If the men are fully nude, they are hidden, as in the ad with football star Tony Gonzales, who is seated safely behind his naked wife, October. PETA only has one man willing to bare it all – musician Dave Navarro (which is not really all that shocking considering Navarro’s penchant for outrageous behavior and self-exposure).
Despite their level of nudity, almost all of the men are posed in traditionally masculine ways: alone and facing front, with tough stares, crossed arms, and big, exposed muscles. This image is clearly used to push the point that vegetarianism, like Chevy trucks or Axe body spray, is tough and cool. These men, with their tattoos, muscles, and stoic glares, represent the rugged side of vegetarianism. The idea that tough, tattooed men can be vegetarians too not only perpetuates the idea that certain foods or food values are gendered, but that vegetarianism needs “toughening up” because it has traditionally been viewed as a wimpy, and thereby, womanly, lifestyle.
The women in the PETA ads, by way of contrast, are used much differently than the men. Most of the women in the ads are fully nude and shot from head to toe. Unlike the men, who appear standing upright and staring straight on to camera, the women in the ads are posed with their bodies twisted away from the camera, their legs crossed or bent, and many are lying down, accentuating female weakness and vulnerability. Instead of looking strong, the women have either the classic “come hither” stare, or they are looking away from the camera in a playful, shy, or frightened way. And, just as in most mainstream advertising, the celebrities in the ads – Bethenney Frankel, Nia Long, Khloe Kardashian (who, oddly enough, is not even a vegetarian), and Eva Mendes – are all skinny, sexy, and glamorous.
More disturbing than this celebrity pageantry are the PETA ads that equate female sexiness and violence. This tactic, used in the past by high-end clothing companies like Dolce and Gabana, Gucci, and Calvin Klein, has troubled feminists for ages, and now PETA unfortunately joins the ranks of those misogynistas. One of these ads features a nude Alicia Mayer, bound in plastic wrap, holding onto chains that dangle meat hooks above her. She, of course, entices the viewer with her sexiness. The ad states, “No one wants to be treated like a piece of meat.” Another ad casts the Bollywood bombshell Celina Jaitly as a shackled “Jane of the Jungle” figure whose legs are chained and cuffed, while two men are poised to “hunt” her from behind. The ad states, “Shackled, Beaten, and Abused. Stop cruelty to elephants.” These two ads juxtapose the image of the fettered woman and the abused animal, making them appear to be one in the same.
These ads are clichéd, disappointing, and, in some cases, blatantly offensive. The type of woman depicted in the ads maintains the conventional advertising philosophy that using thin, glamorous women is the only way to sell products and ideology. Here, the product is vegetarianism, and the ideology is that vegetarianism can make women famous, skinny, and sexy. These ads also cast women as the symbols of the animal or the “meat” itself, which is also highly degrading. Furthermore, the women in these ads, just like the women in beer commercials, are displayed as prizes for a job well done – in this case, for becoming a vegetarian.
The most offensive ads are those featuring images of bondage and abuse. These ads not only conflate violence and sexiness but also make getting treated like a piece of meat look pretty hot. In these ads, PETA equates animal abuse with violence against women and then makes the violence look sexy. And while no one denies the horrors of animal abuse, putting it on the same playing field with violence against women is disconcerting. PETA does not use any men in ads that feature bondage, shackles, or chains, which implies that PETA only considers women to be abused animals, pieces of meat, or prizes to be won.
Granted, the images in all of these ads are meant to be provocative to draw attention to PETA’s cause, which, it must be stated, is a noteworthy one. However, this time the provocation comes in the form of completely overused, and sometimes dangerous, cultural stereotypes that seem contradictory to a countercultural organization like PETA. So, can a progressive group like PETA be considered exploitative even if it’s not making money off these models? Well, exploitative might not be the right word exactly, but demeaning, offensive, and hypocritical are not far cries. The progressive world might be better served by a new type of PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Ads.