No bull: stop falling for PETA's shenanigans

Trolling is core to the group's public relations strategy.

Photo of St. Louis Cardinals bullpen during the October 6, 2021 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Yesterday, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) tweeted out a request for baseball to stop calling the place where relief pitchers get warmed up the “bullpen” and instead call it the “arm barn.”

“‘Bullpen’ refers to the area of a ‘bull’s pen’ where bulls are held before they are slaughtered — it’s a word with speciesist roots and we can do better than that.”

*groan*

This is not a serious proposal. There’s no crowd calling for the term to be swapped out, and I’m pretty sure that PETA doesn’t actually care about it, either. It was just a public relations stunt by the animal rights group — one of many it has pulled off over the years.

In 2018, it did this same thing when it proposed alternatives to “anti-animal language.” Instead of “Kill two birds with one stone,” the group recommended that people say, “Feed two birds with one scone.” “Beat a dead horse” was replaced with “feed a fed horse,” and so on.

“Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon,” wrote the organization in another tweet.

PETA has a knack for getting free media coverage using this and other attention-grabbing strategies. In 2019, I wrote a bit about this:

Each year, PETA submits a Super Bowl ad; each year, the network airing the game rejects it, and that’s exactly what PETA wants. The decade-plus strategy of submitting Super Bowl ads without a chance of getting approved has worked out pretty well for the animal rights organization, which even has a page on its website dedicated to ads that were deemed “too hot for the big game.” The group’s 2016 NSFW “Last Longer” ad has more than 59 million views on YouTube after landing write-ups in outlets including HuffPost, Business Insider, and E! News. Why pay millions of dollars for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl if you can get your message out to tens of millions of people for free?

It’s an article that I’m really proud of, but feel like never got the attention it deserved. The context was news of Twitter’s decision to eliminate political advertising on its services. I pointed out that this came after some politicians found a way to get the attention an ad campaign would bring without actually having to pay for it:

  1. Create an ad that is so unbelievably over-the-top and outside the ad guidelines that it is certain to be rejected. One example I mentioned in the piece was about a Republican member of Congress trying to promote a tweet that claimed she "stopped the sale of baby body parts” at Planned Parenthood (which does not and has never sold “baby body parts”). In this case, the ad was rejected because while Twitter allows stuff like that to be tweeted, you cannot force content that is “likely to evoke a strong negative reaction” to be promoted into users’ timelines.

  2. Once the ad gets rejected, howl about how this is discrimination… even though the entire point of this was for the ad to be rejected.

  3. Reap the rewards of free media centered around the controversy without having to pay a cent in ad fees.

It’s a pretty smart strategy. In the case of the GOP legislator, she saved money, got attention, and was handed an opportunity to (baselessly) claim that Twitter was discriminating against her for being a conservative. The trifecta! And when PETA does it, whether it’s the “Here’s our rejected Super Bowl ad that was too hot for TV!” schtick or its semi-regular pleas for people to change the language they use to describe everyday things (that PETA doesn’t actually care about and isn’t actually serious about wanting people to change), it gets the job done.

A click is a click is a click is an engagement is an impression is a… you get the idea! Outrage is an effective way to get your message across social media. In PETA’s case, it posts something it knows people will get outraged over, waits for the outrage to follow, and then goes back to posting its normal content with the hope that people see it. It certainly helps when legitimate news outlets take their trolling seriously. For instance:

Anyone who takes more than 30 seconds to think about PETA’s suggestions and history of attention-seeking PR stunts should be able to discount this kind of goofy stuff. This isn’t a commentary on the actual work PETA does, which is pretty controversial in its own right, but on its use of rage-bait.

The correct response to this sort of nonsense is to ignore it. Even as I write this I’m wondering whether or not I’m just making things worse by doing it. However, because I know that there will be a “next time” that the organization will do this same thing in the future, I feel obligated to urge people in advance not to fall for it.