PETA: Whatever It Takes
For the record, I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. Nor am I an honorary member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). One of my best friends is, however, and he works at the PETA headquarters in the decrepit asphalt Venice of Norfolk, Va.
I started following PETA's activities because of my personal connection to it, and as I did, I became engrossed with its media tactics, which, to sum them up would be to say they say and do anything at all to draw attention. It sounds simple and obvious enough -- anything at all -- but it clearly isn't, or other groups would be following its lead. Other than the ACLU, which progressive advocacy group (yes, PETA is progressive) garners a regular share of news coverage across the country on a daily basis? Not a single one.
PETA goes after places, people, events and ideas of social meaning and finds a way to seize the headlines -- or create its own. It will do whatever it takes to expose people to its point of view. When PETA asks an agricultural town to change its name from say, Cowtown to Liberated Cowtown, it knows that a bored reporter in the surrounding region will fall for it and write a story about it, and that a bunch of readers sick of stories about septic tanks and cattle prices will fall for the headline. Somewhere in that story will be the sentence: "A PETA representative told the mayor that killing animals is wrong."
With that sentence, PETA scores a victory.
So PETA sends vegetarian chefs to Camp Casey; runs semi-nude pictures of Pamela Anderson with anti-fur captions; and urges the USDA not to rebuild animal labs at the Katrina-devastated Louisiana State University. And every time PETA gets mentioned in a story, it's a win for the organization -- and some real animals might be saved in the process.
Because the truth is, this animal rights thing is a tarpit. The more people are exposed to it, the less comfortable they are with the concept of animal suffering. That's the premise, anyway, and I think it's true.
PETA does have an activist bent in addition to its propaganda arm -- real people doing real things to stop the suffering of specific animals -- and it has a record of winning in that regard. But because of the fight it's up against -- the ubiquity of animal consumption across America -- this thing can only be tackled in degrees by exposure to propaganda about it.
Here's the other thing: PETA doesn't care about its general reputation. PETA is just a vehicle for the animal rights movement, and the staff is fully aware of this, so there's no such thing as bad press, and there's absolute indifference to folks who don't like the group's tactics. Anything at all that gets PETA in the headlines is a win for the animals.
From that perspective, the pundits and authors who tangle endlessly with PETA's campaigns end up working as suckers for the cause. Take Kathryn Jean-Lopez, a writer for the conservative National Review, who was shocked, appalled by PETA's "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign. Jean-Lopez fell for it badly, offering sentences to the animal rights movement on a silver platter. Perhaps her best was, "I'm not going to deny that a cattle slaughterhouse isn't disgusting." Her blinders were on so tight she managed to bump right into the anything at all approach without seeing it: "PETA issues its own reads of the Koran. It toys with the Book of Mormon. Few beliefs are spared PETA's offensiveness."
Too true. PETA doesn't care about Joseph Smith and his Book of Moroni. It cares about animals.
The freakish volume of activity that spills out of PETA is jaw-dropping. Just follow the goings-on of its website (or any of its dozens of spinoff sites) -- it unleashes hordes of powerful propaganda, from press releases and videos to images and investigative reports to photogalleries -- anything at all, and piles of it. I set up a visit with PETA's headquarters to see how it works.
Anything for the animals
Norfolk is primarily a shipping and Navy base city laid out over a system of ports, rivers and canals. It's got a nuked-out downtown typical of most American cities with a healthy dose of Southern racial segregation and poverty surrounding it. Thousands of jar-headed Navy boys fill the streets at night, clogging the bars and restaurants (many of which offer vegan cuisine as a result of PETA's local influence). The PETA building sticks out from all this. It sits on a small inlet on the Elizabeth river right by a small bridge heading into downtown. It's a modern, shiny, blue-green, five- or six-story glassy blot with a big, fat PETA logo right at the top. Inside about 180 staffers churn out the cause.
When you're writing a story about an organization, the last person in the world you want to get your information from is a member of the communications staff. But in my case that's exactly who I wanted to talk to. My first interviewee was Colleen O' Brien, PETA's communications manager.
As bluntly as possible, I asked her about PETA's sending vegetarian chefs to Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas during Bush's August vacation: Do you feel like you made a good return on that investment? After all, PETA is not Morgan Stanley; while it's a $25 million a year operation, it still has to pick its battles.
O' Brien started by spinning me, saying, "Vegetarianism is a cruel-free way of living." She said PETA went into Camp Casey with a non-partisan agenda -- "Those folks were out there, hungry" -- and gave them a vegetarian alternative to eating "decomposing corpses." After I let her go on with this for a while (and yes, putting her quotes in this article is a successful advancement of the animal rights agenda), I tried to bring her back to the issue of whether PETA had mercilessly seized on the fact that hundreds of bored reporters were in Camp Casey, looking to add color to their stories about a poor mother who lost her son in an awful war.
Then she said what I was looking for: "What sets PETA apart from a lot of other groups, is that we have a special relationship with the media. We don't have budgets for the placement of ads like, I suppose, some other groups. We have to do stunts to reach the greatest number of people."
So was the Casey stunt a success? "We had some write-ups," O' Brien said.
Looking back at the coverage from Camp Casey, I found a few mentions. Like the 16th sentence in a Sheehan article from the Des Moines Register: "But instead of corn dogs and funnel cakes, they ate veggie burgers grilled by PETA members and free meals cranked out by a volunteer-staffed kitchen." Corn dogs vs. veggie burgers: you couldn't ask for a better contrast for those Iowa readers.
I reached back to something for O' Brien that I knew had been a massive publicity success: the fax PETA sent to Yasser Arafat in the spring of 2003 asking him to stop using donkeys as portable bomb devices. A donkey strapped with explosives had recently exploded on the road between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion, killing only the animal.
There's no more dependable source of pious reporting and righteous outrage than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And with that letter, PETA struck gold. Network and cable television anchors just couldn't resist a bite on it, including Fox News' Brit Hume (who used the incident as a platform to pop in Ari Fleischer's Orwellification of the term "suicide bomber"):
PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has faxed Yasser Arafat protesting the use of a dynamite-laden donkey as a homicide bomber. The group, which complained about the exploding ass but not about the coincidental murder of Israelis, urged Arafat to, quote, "Leave animals out of this conflict."That's a towering home run for the animal rights movement. A deadpan, Reagan-faced anchor put the Fox watchers on full alert with the mention of Terror, their favorite topic, and also heard a funny pun -- dropping their drawbridges to the unconscious wide open. And then an invading direct quote from PETA sprinted right in.
Of course, PETA didn't get anything close to a promise from Arafat, and it didn't really matter. The point is it siphoned piles of headlines and TV coverage away from a bunch of cynical demagogues in the Middle East and in the direction of the animal rights cause. All it took was a fax with an absurd request to the head of the PLO.
I asked Colleen O' Brien if PETA had put out that letter because the organization truly cared about that dead donkey or for that matter, donkeys in Palestine. She said it was about that donkey and the donkeys of Palestine, but also the way we think about donkeys in general. She more or less agreed that while the letters, stunts and investigations were contextually about instances of animal suffering, they were more about the soft sell to change mass behavior. Not that leather jacket or evil clothing factory, rather the existence of leather jackets, evil clothing factories and the whole clothing market for that matter.
I pressed on with my big Lightning Strikes question: "It's Anything At All, isn't it?" Anything at all to get coverage, so that humans stop making animals suffer; any propaganda, any picture, song, performance, that makes an impact. Anything, right?
I wish she had said, "Yes. Anything." But I did get a nod in the affirmative. "Look, we're living in a time when the media is titillating," O' Brien said. "If we could sit down with CNN with an investigation, we would. But the reality is that it's not like that. It's a tabloid media." Her hope was to provide "images that stay in people's heads."
A glorious tour
After O' Brien left the conference room, I looked out the windows facing the main office. Dozens of PETA staffers sat in a large room, earnestly staring at their computer screens. Handbills and stickers from past campaigns covered the walls, desks and hard drives. One staffer's "companion animal" sat in the aisle with its tail wagging in pure bliss. A mock-up poster of Wendy from Wendy's looked on approvingly, her cleaver fresh and dripping from her latest bovine carve-up session.
Next to speak with me was "Karin Robertson," manager of PETA's Fish Empathy Project. There are quotations around "Karin" because her real name is GoVeg.com. She had it legally changed from Karin Robertson back in 2003, a move that produced piles and piles of headlines (and now a mention here). It still gets a mention pretty much anytime GoVeg's Fish Empathy Project gets in the news.
After we talked about the horrors of the way fish are treated and how they have feelings etc., we came to GoVeg's approach to dealing with the media. GoVeg told me that it's almost impossible to get the press to deal with an issue directly. "They only come up with as many sound bites as possible." I agreed.
"That's why," she said, "we work really hard to make a concise point." A high-vitamin-content sound bite. That's what happened with Brit Hume and the exploding ass, and it's also what happened with GoVeg's project to get the Long Beach California aquarium to stop serving fish.
The sound bites PETA constructs have metrical rules as tight as a haiku. And they must draw on the essential tools of rhetoric -- metaphors, powerful images, etc. -- or fail; everything has to be in that sound bite or else the soft sell is a failure. GoVeg's sound bite in this case hoodwinked poor Amanda Covarrubias at the L.A. Times, who put it in the first sentence of her article: "An animal rights group wants the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach to gut its cafeteria menu of fish and seafood, arguing that 'serving fish at an aquarium is like serving poodle burgers at a dog show.'"
At least a dozen other major media outlets ran with that quote, including The New York Times and, of course, Fox News.
GoVeg took me on a tour of the rest of the building. There was a room for the Writers Group -- a bunch of staffers whose duties include writing letters to the editor and coordinating volunteers to do the same. She pointed outside to the dog park that's open for the local community to use. The park, of course, sports a message board with plenty of animal rights information for visitors to read.
We also saw the stockroom, where five staffers were busily filling up packets to mail off to PETA's army of volunteer activists.
The stockroom was filled with marvelous propaganda covering the full spectrum of Anything At All. There were hundreds of small stackable plastic tubs, each with labels like, "306 MOD Caged Chimp Stencil" or "STU 224 Question Authority: PIG." Inside each tub was an exquisite means of communicating the animal rights agenda.
In one drawer I found some wonderful imitations of those 1980s Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. Written in fluid Spanish, they had been designed for Hispanic children. Some caring genius at PETA called the cards Chupaleches -- "Milk Suckers."
Part of PETA's Eche La Leche (Ditch Milk) campaign, the Chupaleches on the four-card set I took home feature Ling Ladron De Leche ("Ling the Milk Thief"), a lacto-fattened girl who sports a guilty look on her face as she squats behind the legs of a pissed-off cow and drinks from its udder. The Ling card brilliantly communicates dozens of key things; primarily, that if you tried to get your milk from its true source, you'd find yourself like Ling; eyes averted from the quarry, sucking on the teats of a livid heifer.
The card next to Ling is Andrea Anti-Lactosa, who sits on the toilet clutching her stomach as she deals with the consequences of having poured a whole quart of milk down her gullet. The empty milk container rests at her feet looking like the murder weapon in a crime scene. On the back of Andrea's card is a mockup of a Wanted! notice, which reads: "Blow your nose, it's dripping out! Andrea's got milk, but she also has painful and foul-smelling gas. The faster she quits milk, the faster her family and friends can breathe in peace."
Something a child can understand.
GoVeg also took me to a library and reference room filled with shelves of black binders. Each binder contained pages of clippings of PETA's successes, starting from its humble origins in the basement of founder Ingrid Newkirk's house in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It was a glorious hall of fame.
It takes a powerful cause to assemble a clipping collection like this; to persuade someone to change their name; to work tirelessly for very little money (most salaries at PETA are between $28-32k). Applying such tactics to a cause less visceral than animal rights, but just as valuable -- like, say, lower carbon emissions at the 17 most polluting coal plants in America -- isn't as easy. But as an outpouring of a wider environmental movement that does anything at all to change hearts and minds? I think so.
I headed back to the conference room for my third and final interview, with Dan Shannon, the manager of peta2 -- the youth outreach arm of PETA. Shannon is a bright and lucid fellow. After a few minutes with him, it was clear to me that if PETA's approach was a dazzling testimony to what an understanding of mass media in the 21st century can do for a cause, peta2's is a refined, clinical application of that method.
I asked Shannon how he uses the web to get to young folk. He told me that web videos were the latest means of reaching kids he was trying to master. "We promote them virally." He told me the single biggest success for peta2 so far came when one kid with a blog on the popular myspace.com put up a link to PETA's frightening Inside the Chinese Fur Trade video, which was in turn linked to and emailed around in a blizzard. "Three hundred thousand people watched that video, and it came from this one kid."
We talked about the successful peta2 street teams -- groups of young volunteers who protest in their local areas with coordination from HQ. Shannon said the inspiration for this model wasn't pulled out of some progressive handbook; rather it was copied from a model of what record companies have been doing to promote album sales. "It's the companies that do these things. ... They spend millions figuring it out, and I'm thinking, all right, thanks for the idea!"
Who does peta2 go after with its finite budget? "The kids who are savvy." That's the same group Pentagon recruiting manuals tell you to hoard like dragons: the influencers.
It was a delight to be in the presence of a winner. How rare to see a non-profit group beating our commercial society at its own game, in aid of something that is truly good for the world. My visit confirmed for me what I had come to believe as a casual observer: PETA is the most successful, iron-fisted, 501c3 I have ever witnessed; and the only one to make it out of the progressive slums and wage a winning battle at the mass media level.
In tragic contrast to PETA are the scores of non-profits that, despite good faith and hard work, watch their resources sink into the sand, their messages ignored by the public and the media. When I asked Colleen O' Brien why other progressive causes don't adopt PETA's approach, she gave me an absent look. "Their tactics are different from ours ... It could be that they are hesitant." That's all I could get out of her.