Grab a… The ethics of PETA’s Trump-themed campaign

The end does not justify the means – not when it is built on a negative, controversial and sexist theme. The advertising industry is rocked by yet another scandal the creative services do not need: PETA’s “Grab a Pussy” campaign.

PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and they are an internationally recognised and highly acclaimed animal welfare charity whose headline-grabbing awareness campaigns are well known to many of us on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Independent provided us earlier this week with a glimpse into the new billboards PETA is hoping to have installed in London before the US election on 8 November. So far, all seems absolutely fine – the truth is, it’s far from it!

PETA’s latest campaign has been inspired by Donald Trump’s highly controversial “pussy” comments, the same ones that have sparked rage among many Americans, including high ranking members of his own Republican Party.

Is PETA’s most recent campaign making headlines? Of course it is. Is it making the right headlines which, one would rightly assume, will lead to the adoption of more stray cats from the rescue centres on both sides of the Atlantic? I doubt it very much since the campaign’s key message is demeaning and disrespectful to one gender group of the potential “pussy” adopters, i.e. to women.

From an ethical perspective, the message of this campaign is simply wrong – not just because it is built on a pure objectification of women purported by Mr Trump but, also, because it trivialises those little cute creatures it aims to rescue: the cats.

If we are to analyse PETA’s campaign from the angle of the communication objectives being reached, there is no doubt that these have certainly been – if we are to analyse whether PETA’s business objective has been reached, i.e. X% increase in the stray cats adopted that can be directly attributed to PETA’s awareness raising campaign, I doubt that would be the case.

Moving further with my analysis of this stunt-campaign, what would happen if, let’s say, Mr Trump’s spinners would use PETA’s latest billboard ads and claim that “the term ‘pussy’, as used in PETA’s latest awareness raising campaign, is not a demeaning term but, on the contrary, a term of endearment – we are happy PETA understood Mr Trump’s analogy and used it accordingly”.

How would PETA’s Board, supporters and donors react then? Have they actually run a cost-benefit analysis of this campaign and of how damaging this ad stunt may turn out to be not just for them, as a charity, but for those whose rights they claim to protect?

As PR professionals, we know we should pilot our concepts, ideas and projects (especially when it comes to campaigns) and measure the target audience’s response and reaction to these, especially when a decision to purchase a product, use a service or, in this particular case, adopt a cat is involved.

I wonder if PETA did this and whether it used a wide demographic and cultural group to gather relevant insights and data from their US and UK target groups/decision-to-adopt makers (aka ‘cat adopters’). I somehow doubt it … As a woman and a mere animal lover, the first thoughts that sprang to my mind when I saw the ads were:

  • inappropriate message, making me believe that PETA brushed over Mr Trump’s “pussy” comments
  • wrong call for action since the definition of the verb to “grab” is “to grasp or seize suddenly and roughly” and this is certainly not something anyone would to a pussy(cat)
  • why is PETA discriminating between cats and dogs and hasn’t also run with, for instance, “grab a bitch” since that term has also been used by Mr Trump.

Image courtesy of wikimedia

Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018), former UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer, Ella has almost 20 years of high level government and international organisations experience in corporate reputation, leadership and crisis management, across business disciplines and governments, including investment markets, lender organisations, national and international media, NGOs and affected communities. She is a 2014 Service Award Winner of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Assessor of CIPR's Chartered Scheme, an elected member of the CIPR Council (2017-2018), Founder of CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform, former Chair of CIPR’s Foresight Panel and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She handled some of the most prominent international crisis of recent times, she developed the Leadership Development Programme for SPE’s MENA young engineers and she has also been an adviser to several governments on their national branding strategies. Her list of clients includes McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Total, BP, Shell, Centrica, KazTransOil, Averda, The World Bank, Private Investment Development Group, the European Commission, the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development and many others. She is also Robert Gordon University's Lead Trainer for the Crisis Communication Diploma (CIPR Specialist Diploma).

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