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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

30 Days and PETA—social cause as branded content.

Or product placement. However you want to call it. I caught the most recent episode last night of Morgan Spurlock’s series 30 Days featuring basically, PETA. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s the proverbial fish out of water sent to live with the other side for a month. Usually, the person and their hardcore views are changed somewhat, if not altogether. The genesis of 30 Days was Super Size Me. Since then, I’ve been interested in a lot of his work, including projects his production company backed.

But last night, it featured George Snedeker, a hunter from North Carolina sent to live with vegan Melissa Karpel and her family, and I couldn’t help but think that maybe PETA got away with one.

It’s not that I’m not against placement by brands. Far from it. I talk about it all the time here and when done in a cool way, it works because people don’t feel they’re being sold something. And I have no doubt PETA are all high-fiving each other this morning, as would I had my client got national attention on a major show. But this was the first episode of the series that felt like it’s agenda was showing by one group in particular.

Wife Swap this ain’t. There, two families who are polar opposites switch moms, pissed off kids and hilarity ensues. Here, it’s basically immersion into a different way of life, and is mostly one-sided. Yes, the ‘immersee’ can respond and try and make their points, but usually, they’re outgunned. And yes, I understand that that’s the goal: Make people see what it’s like to... (insert occupation here), change happens, followed by revelation.

Only thing is, acceptance is a one-way street on the show, because this is about changing negative perceptions, such as what it’s like to be Muslim, live in a wheelchair, etc. Which is maybe where it felt odd: setting up activism and PETA specifically as being misunderstood, not just a generic issue or group.

From the cheap seats, it did more to cement the opinion people already have of them than it did to illicit empathy.

Maybe for the cause, yes, it got you thinking about ways animals are mistreated, which I agree with after seeing some violent footage. And watching George see dead animals thrown by the side of the road, you know he’s upset because it’s not something he condones. But as for understanding PETA’s agenda and their methods?

While I honestly don’t believe all activists are tree-hugging Greenpeace lunatics, nothing changed for me because Melissa and the other activists featured showed how extreme many of the views still are, especially when your right to decide for yourself is superceded by the rights of animals. (If I choose to stop eating meat, it can’t be because you assaulted me with images of dead or tortured animals. When you do that, you take away my ability to decide for myself.)

Forget ever having a vegan go live with Ted Nugent for a month, (which, imo, the show needs to do more of in showing opposing views), they seem unwilling to even listen to the other side. Then there’s the age-old notion of the woman who ran a rescue farm who would rather have George save his dog and not her—even if her life were threatened.

(I respect animals, but how can you continue the discussion when the heart of the arguement puts them on a pedestal above people? Sell me on them being equal in some larger karmic sense, then okay, I can see that.)

This goes to the heart of one of PETA’s main obstacles in breaking through to a wider and possibly understanding audience: They like animals more than people.

I believe many of their efforts are based on making us feel bad in how we live regarding animals. And if I’m trying to get placement for my brand on TV, the last thing I want is a negative vibe. Regardless, it’s obvious the “Any PR is good PR” playbook is being run step by step as evidenced by all the email promos I get from them. Right now, they’re thinking they drove one out of the park.


One word: Cigarettes. Why is it the anti-tobacco lobby has been so successful in turning the tide in how America views smoking? For many, it’s as addictive as red meat, no? It was the backbone of the country’s economy for a long time. Forty years go we even had doctors in TV commercials telling us smoking was good for us.

Now, good luck finding a restaurant where you can even stand outside and light up. Need a fix? Throw on a patch. Smokers are now viewed as the equivalent of people who eat meat.

How the hell did that happen?

This was accomplished in no small part because the anti-smoking lobby focused then as now on the effects of smoking on people—not hating the smoker. Putting my feelings aside for a sec, PETA had what I thought was a golden opportunity last night to win even more people over.

A chance to really change perceptions people have about the ‘brand’ as well as the cause. (They may think it’s not about them though, but it actually needs to be if they expect to make significant progress because people are killing the messenger.)

What I’m talking about is one scene in particular at a vegan restaurant. George was discussing why he likes meat as he was eating a vegan meal: It tastes good basically. Yes, of course. I love burgers too. But having eaten vegan food and also having done several non-meat/fish diets for weeks at a time, the key was this: Make the food taste great.

Stop making people feel guilty for their food choices—give them better ones instead. Sell. Me. On. Great. Tasting. Alternatives.

So what does Melissa do? Instead of pointing this out and getting him to discuss what he was eating and what he liked about it, or even how his vegan meal tastes, she discusses the painful methods farms use in raising livestock and how dairy cows have irritated nipples from milking machines. Way to win people over.

Another suggestion: Stop focusing on people who wear fur so much also. Here’s a secret from me the blogging carnivore:

Even most carnivores hate people who wear fur too.

Make this about converting the much larger demo: the meat eaters, ’cause there are a lot more of them than there are people wearing leather shoes, fur coats or carrying alligator purses. Not everyone wears fur, but everyone eats.

Wean them off their current habits? Fine. Just don’t be a dick about it. Want to do real placement? Go on Food Network and show alternative meals that kick meat’s ass. Do blind taste tests with the Wendy’s crowd. Real Girls of PETA calendar. (Vegans can be just as hot as Pam Anderson, c’mon, I admit it.) Maybe take yourselves less seriously, and laugh a little more so maybe people don’t hate you as much.

Or just keep doing what you do. At this rate, people ought to be off meat by 2475.

(images via and via.)



Holly Heyser said...

PETA definitely got a good ride out of this - the family got a hunter to say nice things about PETA. That doesn't happen often.

But the show focused on cruelty, which we all agree is bad, and PETA's mission doesn't stop at ending cruelty.

I too was disappointed at the one-sidedness - I really wanted to see the hunter defend his position a little more. But having never seen this show before, I didn't know what to expect. Since the show was about Snedeker living in vegan/PETA-activist shoes, I guess it didn't surprise me. If they sent a PETA activist to live with a hunting family, I'd expect the same thing: A focus on the family's position.

Anonymous said...

“...PETA's mission doesn't stop at ending cruelty.”

True, it doesn’t. This is just the first time I can recall an agenda attached to a specific organaization featured like that in the show.

While they might also be about other issues relative to animals, just mentioning their name already skews the message in the court of public opinion.

Holly Heyser said...

True. I definitely wish the hunter's side of the debate had been given as much airplay. Perhaps Spurlock will find a great family of hunters and have a vegan live with them, and the other side will come out.

Holly Heyser said...

Make that a great family of hunters who are in the NRA.

Anonymous said...

Pam Anderson is vegan! (Maybe that's why she's so hot . . .)

Anonymous said...

Yes she is, but I‘m referring to the non-celeb rank and file PETA crowd.

Elaine Vigneault said...

"Stop making people feel guilty for their food choices—give them better ones instead. Sell. Me. On. Great. Tasting. Alternatives."

Spoken like a true marketer. Only a sales person, firmly entrenched in American capitalism, would reduce a moral argument about rights to consumer choice.

News flash: advocating animal rights is not about "making people feel guilty." Your reaction to our moral argument is yours, not ours. If you feel guilty, perhaps you should think about why instead of trying to convince animal advocates to change their message.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for proving the point. An unwilingness to listen to any view other than your own, let alone pay attention to what the other side actually says. But hey, why let that get in the way of an agenda.

“...would reduce a moral argument about rights to consumer choice.”

Can’t separate consumerism from the issue because unless everyone decides they will never buy another product of any sort, it’s part of the equation. Every time you advocate a diet or product option (such as clothing)that’s not dependent on animals, an alternative still has to be grown/made and then purchased. Hence, consumerism, no?

“If you feel guilty,”

Never said I do. Some may. But if I ever did? It wouldn’t be because I let someone made me feel that way by taking away my right to choose with public stunts or graphic photos kids could see.

“...perhaps you should think about why instead of trying to convince animal advocates to change their message.”

I also never said change the message—I said change the way it‘s delivered and you’ll go further. I actually agreed that animal rights is an important issue and offered several ways you could win over more people instead of getting more people to hate you.

Holly Heyser said...

That's hardly "reduc(ing) a moral argument about rights to consumer choice." That's advice on being effective.

Another piece of advice on being effective is not bringing in the debate about economic and political systems. A lot of very reasonable people shut down when they suspect a particular argument is all part of a leftist litany.

Reality is, animal cruelty sucks, and lots of people would like to reduce their indirect support for animal cruelty without necessarily changing everything they eat and throwing out all their leather. You can capitalize (oops, sorry, don't mean to be offensive) on the goodwill your arguments spark in them, or not. Your choice.

Anonymous said...

If I remember right from Super Size Me isn't Spurlocks girlfriend (wife?) a vegan chef? Maybe that contributed to the one-sided-ness of this episode (I didn't see it myself so I'll take your word for it).

On being vegan or vegetarian: I've changed my diet over the past two years or so to be about 90% vegetarian and I think the biggest thing for me to get my head around was not trying to replace meat in my diet (by replace I mean replicate taste / texture, etc) but accepting in new food entirely. This meant treating veggie burgers (which can be awesome, btw) differently than I would a hamburger. Using different condiments and recipes to match the new tastes. Honestly, I'm surprised at the amount of downright delicious vegetarian food that can be found out there. The biggest challenge is changing your mindset and approach to making a meal because we're often brought up in a meat-centric home.

And as far as PETA using cruelty as a reason to not eat meat: personally I'm more affected by the environmental effects of meat production (living in a town built on meatpacking doesn't really give me a great opinion of that industry). Don't get me wrong though, cruelty is up there, but making a one pronged argument is foolish when there are so many great reasons to reduce your meat intake.

Holly Heyser said...

Interestingly enough, HUNTING has caused me to decrease my intake of meat! You value it a lot more when you not only have to work hard for it, but when you actually take the animal's life.