147. Dan Mathews of PETA on Protecting Your Integrity & Advertising For Impact

Dan Mathews of PETASenior Vice President of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Dan Mathews has +30 years experience recruiting celebrities and devising public media spectacles to surreptitiously shape human behavior.

What does your job consist of? Broadly, to bring the issue of animal rights to as many people as possible. Without realizing it, a lot of animal rights groups – and other rights groups as well – design campaigns which appeal to donors or to people who already care about and believe in the rights group’s mission and philosophy. I’m not after those people, I care about reaching the people who either aren’t aware of animal cruelty or who don’t consider animal rights an important issue.

Tell me about the origins of PETA’s cause. When I first started out as a volunteer over 30 years ago, animal cruelty wasn’t an issue; people didn’t take it seriously and mocked anyone who did.

As with any belief, those first movers are labelled as idiots and extremists. But overtime as awareness grows and more and more people start giving the subject validation by talking about it, people begin taking it more seriously. Today, animal rights has become prevalent enough in today’s culture and with today’s generation that people avoid wearing fur, for example, for fear of being rejected by their peers. The social landscape has shifted.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Recall in the documentary How to Ru(i)n a Business: How Streaming & Filesharing Are Better Absorbed Than Fought that in the 1970s cable news was viewed as a pirate medium, seen as nothing more than a channel that pirated their content and broadcasted it to individuals – piracy pure and simple. Movie studios immediately brought lawsuits against the news studios. Even the first .mp3 player by Diamond Rio was met with a lawsuit.]

What is PETA’s advertising strategy? The fact is that people today are bombarded by advertising from every direction trying to sell you something. Except PETA isn’t selling a product, we’re promoting an ethic and discouraging people from buying certain products. This means that PETA isn’t recouping costs from our advertising budget through product sales, so we must be very careful where and how we spend our limited advertising dollars.

Therefore PETA takes advantage of shock and provocation because this is what always draws people’s attention. This is why PETA launches projects using sex, for example our “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign.

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(photo from here.)

Further, people’s decisions are generally driven by social desires and how they believe society will judge them. This is why we work with celebrities and collaborators willing to use their influence for good causes. But rather than simply asking for financial donations or to host a dinner: ideas which would help our cause but would be instantly forgotten about, PETA prefers to create campaigns which will leave a lasting impression on society and offer the collaborator the opportunity to express his or her style and beliefs in a way that does good.

For instance Pamela Anderson is known for the Baywatch bathing suit, so we asked her to wear a bikini made of lettuce for PETA’s veggie campaign. Being a fellow animal advocate and having an interesting opportunity to express herself in a unique way, she eagerly participated.

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(image from here)

Is there such a thing as bad advertising? Returning to the strategy of shock and provocation, the objective is to provoke while not turning people against you. This involves walking a fine line; which does get crossed from time to time.

For example, when Bea Arthur, the iconic American actress who starred in The Golden Girls television series and honorary PETA Director passed away in 2009, she left $25,000 to PETA in her will. One of her big issues was fighting factory farm cruelty, so in honor of Bea PETA, with her son’s permission and sympathies, took out a full page advertisement in the Chicago Tribune, where McDonalds is headquartered, declaring McDonald’s cruelty is “enough to make Bea Arthur roll over in her grave” and to “switch to a less violent, USDA-approved chicken-slaughter method.”

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(image from here)

People were of course shocked at this advertisement, but we stand behind our decision and that advertisement had a huge impact, with the ad being talked about in all the major newspapers and on blogs across the internet. After a few years, McDonalds actually acquiesced and changed their practices. This was made possible thanks in part to Bea Arthur’s donation combined with her longtime PETA activism. How wonderful to keep active even after you’re dead!

Does PETA have a dedicated marketing department or do you work with professional agencies? PETA has a campaigns department which comes up with ideas for protests, and some protest ideas turn into full fledge campaigns. This is in fact how we came up with the “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign I mentioned earlier

(Caution: this NSFW video contains graphic content.)

I had stumbled upon an old protest photo of a local group in Florida that had been sent to us of with Holly Jensen wearing a flesh-colored leotard holding a hand-made sign that read “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” written in magic marker. The idea was brilliant and I knew that it deserved more attention. We replicated it in nude street actions in world capitals, disrupting fashion shows naked, and finally naked celebrity ads which now define PETA’s brand for 3 decades.

What do you do when the collaborators who endorse PETA’s mission later go against what PETA stands for? This is a difficult issue to deal with, and you inevitably bruise some relationships, but in the end your integrity is most important.

Just as you would tell your friends and colleagues when you disagree with what they’re doing or the way they’re behaving, PETA does the same thing.

And you don’t just abandon your relationship with them without notice, either. If a celebrity or public figure who agrees to collaborate with PETA to promote animal rights later does something that goes against that ethic – for example participate in a fur catwalk show or use chained elephants in their public events, PETA contacts them and their managers to inform them that what they’re doing promotes animal cruelty as well as how they’re damaging their reputation and integrity, and we contact them multiple times to make sure they have the opportunity to fix it. But if nothing changes we have no choice but to target them and publically denounce them.

If you’re going to stand up for something, you stand up for it all the time; not some of the time or only when it is lucrative for you. Integrity is the most important thing you have; not something you take lightly.

But this doesn’t happen very often because sponsors and celebrities know where PETA stands on these issues, and so by choosing to collaborate with us, they are usually as serious about animal rights as we are.

I’m a small business on a small budget, any advice?

  • Advertising must match with your target audience. With today’s generation it’s important that you be able to summarize your idea into 5 words max, assuming that people will see your advert on their phone.
  • Shock and provocation. And I don’t mean shock and provocation for the sake of shock and provocation. I mean strategic shock and provocation. Do something that goes against the social norms of your target audience or your market and that will touch the heart of your target audience and shake things up.
  • If you’re a small business then it’s safe to say your consumers have a hundred other choices besides you. So develop a real distinct personality that cuts through the noise and stands out among your hundred other competitors. People will remember you when you are edgy or distinct.
  • The most important thing is to not think that you have to reach everybody; you have to meet the niche of the people who appreciate the point of view of your company, or as I stated earlier in PETA’s case – the people who don’t care about your cause that you want raise awareness with. Know who you are targeting.