A few years ago, when Janet Jackson “oopsed” her way into Super Bowl and Federal Communications Commission history, 140 million viewers of the biggest game on earth got flashed for no particular reason.
For this year’s game, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gave NBC a full 30 seconds of steamy vegetables, photographed in various positions with female models.
NBC said no thank you. They rejected PETA’s ad, and its message that vegetarians have better sex.
For its part, PETA saved its donors the $3 million cost of 30 seconds’ worth of Super Bowl eyeballs, and got itself, and its cause, probably more publicity than a mere broadcast of the ad would have.
To be sure, the ad is racier than even the standard-issue Swedish bikini team beer ads that are as much a cultural event as the Super Bowl game itself. Against a heavy-metal music track, the comely models are shown licking eggplants, molesting pumpkins, bathing with broccoli, and oiling up a salad. One bunch of asparagus, with football the farthest thing from its mind, looks like it almost makes it to third base.
NBC’s vice president of Advertising Standards, Victoria Morgan, sent PETA a positively smutty email (reader discretion advised) saying that the ad “depicts a level of sexuality that exceeds [NBC’s] standards.” I’m looking forward to seeing the level of bawdiness in the commercials that do make NBC’s cut.
All of which points out PETA’s knack for brilliance. Whatever you may think of PETA (full disclosure: my diet would hardly qualify me as a member), I can’t imagine they didn’t fervently hope to get rejected. They’d save the $3 million, and reap the whirlwind of publicity from TV and websites, this one included, worldwide. Best of all, PETA’s ad is totally devoid of the trap of self-righteousness that many groups passionate about their cause — left or right -- fall into. It’s a home run for the message that avoiding meat is good for the planet, and good for your health.
Contrast that with some of PETA’s past exercises, counterproductive and loaded to the gills with that same self-righteousness. They’ve not blinked an eye at invoking the image of the Holocaust, and comparing factory farming to an event that has no comparison in history. In 2005, two years after the “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign began, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk apologized for it, saying “it was never our goal to humiliate” Holocaust victims.
Last year, PETA urged Ben & Jerry’s to make its ice cream using human breast milk, “the only milk intended for human consumption.” Following Hurricane Katrina, the group felt its best contribution to the suffering was to demand that Louisiana State University be charged with animal abandonment for leaving its research animals behind in the storm.
PETA reached the height of self-parody in 1996, when it demanded that the 330-year-old Village of Fishkill, N.Y., had better face up to the “violent imagery” of its name and find a new one. The Village of Fishkill was whipped into a frenzy. Village Supervisor Joan Pagones begged PETA to turn the heat down, saying, ''We love animals, we love fish, we love dogs, we love cats. We can't change our heritage."
Fishkillians started a petition to escape PETA’s wrath. It’s still online 13 years later, having topped out at 168 signatures. Fishkill is still called Fishkill, and it stills means, roughly, “creek full of fish” in Dutch. The PETA campaign died quietly, and the nearby Catskill Mountains were also off the hook.
Mark me down as a meat-eating hypocrite who knows full well that much of PETA’s intent is sound: Factory farming, cattle grazing and meat-eating are not in our best interests. I still can’t fathom how a passionate and dedicated group like PETA can get their message so right, and so wrong. I think I’ll ponder that while I go back and watch the Vegetables Gone Wild! commercial once more.
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Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)