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Was it a clever piece or marketing or a PR own goal?
That’s the question we have been debating ever since we first saw the social media post from PETA calling for people to stop using ‘anti-animal language’.
The animal rights group, which stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has called for common phrases like ‘beat a dead horse’ (which should surely be ‘flog’) and ‘bring home the bacon’, to be replaced by ‘feed a fed horse’ and ‘bring home the bagels’.
More amusingly perhaps, it has suggested that ‘kill two birds with one stone’ should be replaced with ‘feed two birds with one scone’.
Words matter, and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it. Here’s how to remove speciesism from your daily conversations. pic.twitter.com/o67EbBA7H4— PETA: Bringing Home the Bagels Since 1980 (@peta) December 4, 2018
You might think that the group has bigger fish to fry (sorry). My first reaction was that something had gone wrong with the scheduling of the group’s social media activity and that this had been intended for April Fool’s Day.
But a second tweet on the subject confirmed it was intentional and that the group was serious about tackling what it calls ‘speciesism’ and replacing meat-based idioms.
It said: "Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialise 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."
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.— PETA: Bringing Home the Bagels Since 1980 (@peta) December 4, 2018
Regular readers of this media training blog will know that we are keen followers of language and we regularly write about the words and phrases spokespeople should avoid in interviews and presentations. Tackling corporate language and jargon is one thing, but trying to eradicate phrases which are so ingrained in our culture seems a lot more ambitious.
But, this social media activity has certainly been successful in capturing attention. The problem for PETA is that virtually all of the responses have taken the form of ridicule – you could call them catty comments - from vegans and meat eaters alike.
And that, in turn, had led to a range of negative headlines.
PETA mocked for suggesting animal friendly alternatives to popular phrases Evening Standard
PETA faces online backlash after encouraging people to stop using anti-animal language ITV News
Animal rights group PETA ridiculed over ‘stop using anti-animal language’ tweet Daily Mail
PETA gets dogged for tweet demanding end to anti-animal language Huff Post
PETA, of course, is no stranger to controversy and you would imagine that it was braced for some outrage. In response to a previous campaign, it claimed that silence was a bigger concern than controversy or criticism.
But you have to wonder whether it was expecting to receive more than 45,000 people replying with virtually all of them being critical of the initiative.
Been veggie for 12 years. If anyone uses the phrase “take the flower by the thorns” I’m volunteering in the abattoir. pic.twitter.com/N8aZo9gibx— James Felton (@JimMFelton) December 5, 2018
Siri, show me why people think us vegans are humourless twats. https://t.co/FWWnadf7u9— Romesh Ranganathan (@RomeshRanga) December 5, 2018
Why would anyone grab a flower by its thorns?!?! https://t.co/fVi5VYuiaA— Ian McLaren (@iancmclaren) December 4, 2018
But more alarming from a reputational point of view, have been the complaints that it is offensive to compare common animal sayings to racism and homophobia.
@peta : Phrases like “bringing home the bacon” are equal to racist, homophobic or ableist language only in the privileged world of people who have never actually had to suffer racist, homophobic or ableist language. pic.twitter.com/qUYYvhN9xd— michaeland (@michael64875513) December 7, 2018
Hi, @peta. As someone who has had homophobic slurs shouted at him and seen individuals physically threatened and beaten while anti-LGBTQ epithets were hurled, your stupidity is not even laughable— it is offensive to equate common animal idioms to racism, ableism, or homophobia.— Anthony Michael Kreis (@AnthonyMKreis) December 5, 2018
PETA is really out here comparing someone being called a f*ggot to the use of the term ‘kill two birds with one stone’, ok https://t.co/OHyx6BZiLv— matt horwood (@matthewhorwood) December 4, 2018
That takes this beyond a willingness to look silly – the group, you may recall, recently called for the Dorset village of Wool to be renamed Vegan Wool - in order to get people talking about an issue, into much more uncomfortable territory.
And that, again, has been picked up by the media.
PETA compares homophobia to phrases like ‘bring home the bacon’ Pink News
PETA criticised for equating ‘anti-animal’ language with racism and homophobia Fox News
These are surely not the sort of headlines an organisation would want to create, even one that courts controversy. The comparison between ‘speciesism’ and homophobia and racism takes what could have been a good PR stunt into the realms of a PR disaster.
And the risk is that is it may alienate those who support, or are sympathetic to the group. Or, to put it another way, its chickens may come home to roost.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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