PETA in Detroit: When Bad News Sticks Around

For PETA, the ends often seem to justify the means.   The nonprofit previously used the sexual objectification of women to discourage the wearing of fur.  This past July they decided to use the desperate situation of Detroiters to promote veganism. PETA offered to pay the overdue water bills of ten Detroit families if they agreed to go vegan for a month.

Since March, Detroit’s water department has shut off residential water service more than 26,000 times and has been criticized by United Nations investigators as a result.  According to Ashley Byrne, a PETA campaigner, “PETA sees it as a win-win”: turn the water back on for Detroiters while bringing attention to the cause of veganism.

But PETA was criticized on social media, where individuals argued that access to water was a human right that PETA should not use to promote their own ends.

After a few days of online news reports and Twitter outrage, the story was gone by the beginning of August.

But Tumblr works a little differently.  Popular posts circulate on the site for months or years and there is even a culture that one should #alwaysreblog favorite posts, regardless of whether one has already done so.

Despite being posted on August 1st, the photo below appeared on my Twitter dashboard today has been liked or reblogged more than 100,000 times, perhaps because it’s shows a vegan condemning the group:

We live in media-saturated times, constantly inundated with requests for our attention.  So choosing a controversial tactic that links a cause to a news item is appealing.  The news cycle is also usually very short, with few stories generating headlines for more than a few days.

However, organizations must think more carefully about the potential cost of bad publicity now that platforms like Tumblr have a longer memory – and millions of users.  By drawing criticism for their tactics, PETA may be raising awareness of veganism, but not in the positive light that would cause individuals to adopt the practice.

And that bad publicity isn’t disappearing quickly.   As Tumblr user housewifeswag commented earlier today:

this guy is awesome. peta can fuck themselves for dangling water over the heads of people who can’t afford it.

Header image: Detroit water shutoff protest (July, 2014) by Flickr/WDET 101.9 Detroit