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Offensive Billboard Coming Down, But Did PETA Learn Anything?

August 24, 2009

Originally published in August 2009 at The Previous Blog, following this post. Republished and archived here in June 2010 to accompany this post.

Apparently, the outcry–from the general public and animal advocates alike–against PETA actually made a difference for once (sort of; I’ll explain as we continue). I received a note from a friend this morning, sharing with me a response she’d just received from someone at PETA. The horrible “Save the Whales” billboard is coming down. Here’s part of that response:

The original billboard is being replaced with one that says “GONE. Just Like All the Pounds Lost by People Who Go Vegetarian.” It has no provocative artwork, and it stands as a tribute to the people who contacted us after seeing the first billboard and have taken our 30-day Pledge to Be Veg or are trying a meat- and dairy-free diet in their own way. As one woman wrote, “I have tried Atkins, Fatkins and everything else in the book, but no one ever suggested a vegetarian diet. Now that I’ve seen the research, count me in!”

We agree that a world where self-esteem is unrelated to body size would be a wonderful place, but we also know that most people feel depressed and embarrassed about their weight and often need some tough love. Our aim was not to insult people who are overweight but to get people talking—and then persuade them to make a simple, positive change for their health. We have heard from people who were offended by our message, and we have been yelled at on talk shows, but we have also heard from overweight people who expressed support for our tactics, including some women whose vegetarian weight-loss journeys we plan to chronicle on our Web site.

While this billboard has caused some people to “shoot the messenger,” it has also created a great debate about the message: that people are eating themselves to death. Americans now eat more than 1 million animals an hour—animals who are raised and killed in appallingly cruel conditions. Something drastic must be done to shake up society’s complacent acceptance of the national obesity epidemic, and we want people to know that they have options: Pills and procedures are not the solution. The human illnesses and animal suffering that a meat-heavy diet causes are completely unnecessary: a pure vegetarian diet is the optimum diet.

We take obesity very seriously indeed, which is why we think it would be cruel not to tell people about how, by going vegetarian, they can help themselves, animals, and the Earth. If change is going to come, someone must stir things up. PETA won’t shy away from doing so.

The message goes on to defend the campaign in more detail. So what does this tell us? The billboard may be coming down, but PETA still doesn’t get it. “A world where self-esteem is unrelated to body size would be a wonderful place,” says PETA, but hey–until then, we’re going to take advantage of people’s insecurities as much as we possibly can! PETA’s response is a message full of self-justification: “We don’t think we did anything wrong, but you people are all oversensitive whiners who missed the point, so I guess we’ll take it down.” It’s infuriating to me that PETA can’t for once just say, “We screwed up.” There is no sincere apology here for hurting overweight people, vegans and nonvegans alike, for shaming them, for even calling them whales. And there is certainly no indication here that the organization’s tactics are going to change anytime soon as a result of the outrage.

PETA, this wasn’t a case of “shoot the messenger” because people didn’t want to hear about the dangers of obesity, and you know it. It was people–including vegans, thin and overweight alike–being rightly and righteously angered and hurt by a cruel, insensitive case of taunting and bullying (for god’s sake, read the Vegan Hope post, please). It is exactly this kind of self-aggrandizing position, even when PETA has done something wrong–“Someone must stir things up. PETA won’t shy away from doing so”–that has made so many people distance themselves from, and even despise, the organization. This is not a case of PETA being a noble, brave entity speaking the hard truth but being dragged down by detractors with some sort of vendetta. It’s a case of PETA being wrong but refusing to own up to that.

While I was writing this, PETA posted an update regarding the billboard on its blog. And now I’m even more furious. This post downplays the controversy over the billboard even more than the private responses people received. The blogger happily announces, “We’ve been inundated with calls and e-mails of support from people,” but ignores the overwhelming, impossible-to-miss outrage and condemnation the billboard elicited from countless and varied individuals and organizations.

This is a tactic both PETA and other mainstream, in-the-spotlight animal advocacy organizations use. They outright refuse to ever acknowledge that any criticism of them might be valid. They instead marginalize and/or silence their critics, conveniently ignore or gloss over the actual criticisms in their responses (if they respond at all), and paint those critics as clueless fools who miss the point and just want to bring the all-good and all-powerful group down. I’m getting tired of it. Many of us are tiring of it. It’s time for the big and moneyed organizations to stop seeing themselves as infallible titans and start listening to what animal advocates outside (and sometimes even on) their payroll and their immediate circle have to say. They desperately need some perspective–and, frankly, to be brought down a notch.

Awesome image below by Kelly of

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