People for the Ethical Treatment of People

PETA BWVAKTBOOM vegan advertising campaign feminism - Beckie SmithIn an uncertain world, it is comforting to know that there are a few things which can be consistently relied upon – if only to provide disappointment. There is no longer any shock value in saying that a new ad campaign which uses sex to sell something which is in no way related to sex has overstepped a few boundaries and angered a few people.

I’ve talked before about the advertising industry’s perturbing reliance on sex to sell, well, everything – but there is usually a degree of subtlety involved. It’s rare to hear a narrator talking explicitly and at length about the sexual prowess a product has bestowed upon them. And while advertisers have a habit of subtly degrading women and suggesting that our self-worth should be defined by our physical appearance and sexuality, there is a certain kind of blatant sexism which is alarming and very, very ugly. While it’s easy to think that this particular brand of casual misogyny is confined to ‘lads-mag’-rags and Lynx ads, it’s particularly unsavoury when flaunted by those who claim to champion a moral cause. Speaking up for the defenceless, the abused and the downtrodden, welcome onto the scene PETA: the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

In their latest video offensive, Boyfriend Went Vegan And Knocked the Bottom Out Of Me (BWVAKTBOOM), PETA have once again stirred up needless controversy in order to gain publicity. The campaign is stunningly crass from start to finish, from its parody of a charity appeal for victims of domestic abuse, to its bizarre, fake video blogs in which people (mostly women) gush about getting laid and injured in the process.

The campaign begins with an appeal disturbingly like those designed to raise awareness of help for domestic violence victims, featuring a girl in a neck brace awkwardly climbing the steps to her home. We are told she suffers from BWVAKTBOOM: “a painful condition that occurs when boyfriends go vegan and can suddenly bring it like a tantric porn star.” The ad is grossly insensitive and tasteless on a number of levels, most of which don’t need spelling out.

The next stage of the campaign consists of a series of mocked-up home videos in which women testify about their male partners’ new-found insatiable sexual appetite and energy. Clearly aimed at men, the message of the videos is that adopting a vegan diet will lead to a huge increase in sex appeal and stamina. However, there is another, more sinister, interpretation: that a vegan diet increases the chance of becoming an abusive carnal maniac, to the point of inflicting physical harm on sexual partners. Women lament the injuries they have sustained as a result of prolonged sexual activity – bruising, sprains, joint pain and concussions. Interestingly, one of the only narrators not to mention any negative side-effects of their lovers’ change in lifestyle is male. This seems to add to the worrying view that men are more active participants in sex, whereas women are passive objects who are acted upon and ‘damaged’.

A few choice quotes set the tone for the ads:

He’s like a sex robot with no off button

Do they make joint cream for the uterus?

I was an only child with daddy issues; I went to private school; I pledged a sorority at a top-ranked, basketball university where I was also a cheerleader; and then I went on to become an intern in Washington. So, yes. I like to have a lot of sex.

Their justification for the use of ‘controversial tactics’ in the past has been weak at best, but surely even PETA must realise that perpetuating slut-stereotypes is tacky. Amongst the other complaints about the videos this seems like a minor transgression, but adds insult to (literal) injury and highlights the cheapness of the campaign.

No less disturbing are the responses to the videos. It seems pertinent in the wake of the recent UNILAD scandal, and discussions about sexual violence entering the mainstream in a major way, to mention the high volume of comments on YouTube whose sentiments range from ‘it’s only a joke, don’t take it so seriously’ to making light of domestic violence – “I’m mean come’on, who wouldn’t want to hurt their girlfriend during sex, and she actually enjoyed it” [sic]. PETA is shamelessly engaging with this kind of thinking in order to gain publicity.

It’s rare that comments of this calibre provoke from me any response other than utter disdain. However, one did cause me to rethink my perspective – though the likelihood of this being intentional is slim to not-a-chance-in-hell:

Quit your whining, Men are always portrayed badly in the media, don’t see you up in arms then. Darn feminists and their double-standards

This, of course, is quite true; questionable portrayals of men can be found throughout the media. These are valid concerns which should be addressed, beginning with the example of the PETA campaign videos.

My initial anger upon watching the videos stemmed from the misogyny displayed in the portrayal of violent, exploitative (towards women) sexual relationships. Since then, however, my feelings have changed.  Let me be very clear: I am no less disgusted on second view; but I have equally growing concerns about their portrayal of men. The campaign preys upon some men’s insecurity about sexual inadequacy, implying that a man’s worth is measured by his ability to guarantee sexual satisfaction.

Instead of focussing on the quantifiable and realistic benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle, PETA delivers an ad campaign based solely upon exaggerating the chances of men who eat meat developing erectile dysfunction. In the interests of thorough research, I visited PETA’s BWVAKTBOOM website. If, like me, you begrudge them the traffic, here are the opening paragraphs from the page entitled ‘A Vegetarian Diet Can Help With Impotence’:

Every year, impotence, or “erectile dysfunction,” affects millions of men across the world, with one study showing that as many as half of men over the age of 40 are impotent at least part of the time.

Originally, it was thought that impotence was caused by anxiety, but according to the Erectile Dysfunction Institute, up to 90 percent of all cases of impotence are physical as opposed to psychological. That’s right: High cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, prostate cancer or inflammations, and hormonal imbalances cause the vast majority of all cases of impotence.

The good news is that medical science suggests that all of these conditions can be managed or in some cases even prevented with a low-fat vegan diet […] These foods will scrub the plaque off the arterial walls to get your blood flowing and your love life going again in no time.[1]

Leaving aside for a moment the dubious ‘medical science’ behind the claim that a vegan diet will “scrub the plaque off the arterial walls”, let’s consider a couple of the website’s FAQs. “Why can’t I eat all the meat that I want and then just take Viagra?” is followed by “What if I’m already experiencing impotence?” The implicit message is not difficult to spot: eating meat will definitely lead to impotence – a condition that few meat-eating men are lucky enough to enjoy living without.

It is not only the myth-making and scaremongering that demonstrate PETA’s apparent misogyny and misandry. Feminist film criticism challenges film-makers who objectify women by prescribing a particular physical appearance and attire for female characters; but also for their failure to represent women as autonomous beings with inherent value and the capacity for independent thought. This is typically demonstrated in a lack of female lines, compared to large speaking roles given to powerful and ‘important’ male characters. Interestingly, in all but one of PETA’s videos, the voiceless role is that of the man, who does not even make an appearance; no details are given about him beside his diet and sexual prowess. The male partner is no less objectified than the female.

This whole campaign is tasteless in the extreme. It preaches that men’s greatest worth is based on their ability to satisfy sexually women and themselves; preys upon men’s fears of impotence and sexual inadequacy; and trivialises suffering of and sexual violence towards women. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing positive about these ads. It is a great shame that PETA is incapable of showing the same respect to humans as it does animals; though in all honesty, I have come to expect nothing better.

Image: PJMixer on Flickr

Originally published here on 4 March 2012.


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