Who’s Harming Whom? A PR Ethical Case Study of PETA’s Holocaust on Your Plate Campaign
This paper examines PETA’s 2003-2004 “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, a travelling outreach and awareness campaign that paired graphic images of factory farming and nazi atrocities with quotes from Jewish scholars comparing the suffering of animals to the suffering of Jews in concentration camps. The author analyzes the campaign and subsequent reactions using the principles of TARES (Truthfulness of the message, Authenticity of the persuader, Respect for the audience, Equity/fairness of the appeal to the audience, and Social responsibility for common good), and provides a comprehensive overview of where it seems the campaign succeeded and where it failed.
In 2003-2004, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched and toured with the “Holocaust On Your Plate” campaign, whose fundamental premise was to “use quotes from Jewish scholars comparing the Nazi’s mistreatment and mass killing of Jews in the 1940s to factory farming’s mistreatment and mass killing of nonhuman animals today.” The campaign used those quotes on a website (MassKilling.com, now defunct), and a traveling exhibit of eight 60 square foot photo panels that depicted graphic scenes from factory farms and nazi death camps. This would be an attention-grabbing campaign by a group of any stature, but as the article’s author, Carrie Packwood Freeman notes, “PETA is the largest animal rights group in the world, and thanks to its media savvy, it is also one of the most well known.” The campaign landed hard across North America, and around the world. The paper quotes a PETA representative as saying the campaign was predominantly well-received on the ground, but also notes that “a review of the many international news stories surrounding the campaign shows a much more negative overall response than was Prescott’s experience on the ground.” The campaign presented a comparison that was very hard for most viewers to reckon with, and was criticized heavily.
With those critiques in mind, the paper seeks to evaluate both the effectiveness and the ethicality of the campaign, using the principles of TARES (Truthfulness of the message, Authenticity of the persuader, Respect for the audience, Equity/fairness of the appeal to the audience, and Social responsibility for common good). Freeman recognizes that “PETA is sincere in its desire to reduce animal suffering by having people go vegetarian, so the campaign goals do authentically match [their] mission. However, some may accuse PETA of being disingenuous when claiming that it never expected to offend the Jewish community, considering the common-sense knowledge that use of Holocaust imagery is clearly a highly sensitive issue not to be taken lightly.” Though Freeman states that, “I do not see any inaccuracy or deceit in the facts or visuals used in the campaign,” she contends that some ways of delivering the message are simply inadequate: “The use of TV ads and billboards to convey this message likely does not allow for adequate context to be given on a complicated and sensitive issue such as this, whereas a documentary, book, or lecture might provide much more thorough context.” The author notes that news media coverage rarely mentioned vegetarianism, instead focusing on how inappropriate the comparison of “genocide” was to animal “mistreatment.” She notes that while the logic of the message might make sense to (many) non-speciesist viewers, they are ultimately not the intended target, meaning the campaign was misdirected. Likewise, she notes that, in terms of the campaign’s ability to foster public dialogue, it certainly sparked a conversation, but much of that discussion “simply reflected the public’s outrage over the comparison of human lives to animals rather than a willingness to deeply investigate the ethics of their own dietary choices or the destructive logic of the constructed human/animal dichotomy.”
Freeman’s evaluation concludes by saying that “truthfulness and authenticity might be seen as campaign strengths, while equity and social responsibility would be questionable, and respect for the audience would likely be the largest weakness.” The author offers some possible improvements for the campaign to make for a more ethical relationship between PETA and the viewers, such as showing fewer (or no) holocaust images and relying just on the words of Jewish scholars to make the comparison. Ultimately, Freeman believes that if advocacy organizations are able to treat their audiences in an ethical manner, it will help their messages to be absorbed more effectively. Organizations like PETA, “need practical ethical guidance for using persuasive communication in ways that are respectful, foster unity, and retain ethos – realizing it is hard to show sincere respect for your audience’s social values when you seek to change them. […] It is an additional challenge for an organization like PETA to make a sound that will truly resonate with its audience on such a serious social issue when it is having to scream to be heard.”
Little existing research explores the special ethical challenges most applicable to social movement organizations as they struggle to use persuasive communication campaigns to redefine accepted social practices into social problems. As a case study, this paper evaluates People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s controversial 2003-04 international “Holocaust on Your Plate” vegetarian campaign to determine its strengths and weaknesses from the standpoint of public relations ethics, using TARES principles and ethical theory as a guide. Issues of respect and minimizing harm take center stage.
Note: for a published version of the paper please visit this link.