Does Sex Sell Ethical Behavior?

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a wonk. And one of my favorite wonky pleasures is HumaneSpot. Each week they highlight scientific studies addressing issues in the animal welfare arena.

One study highlighted this week is entitled, When Sex Doesn’t Sell: Using Sexualized Images of Women Reduces Support for Ethical Campaigns. The study was conducted by Renata Bongiorno and Paul Bain of the University of Queensland, and Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne.

And just what, pray tell, do this have to do with elephants?

PETA’s premise for sexualizing women is that men support animal rights causes less than women, so why not target men in their advertising?  But does it work?

This study was conducted in two parts. Study One checked to see if advertisements that objectified women would make men more likely to support an ethical campaign. Study Two uses a mixed group to determine if ads that sexualized women drew more or less support for PETA.

This is a pregnant woman in a cage used to raise sows for the meat industry. This stunt was pulled on Mother’s Day.

The findings? Study one found that men may be turned on by the sexy women, but it made them less likely to show interest in the movement they’re touting. Study two found that the less uniquely human (more objectified) the woman in the ad, the less likely the participant was to support PETA.

So what was PETA’s response?

“History shows us that sex does sell. The study has a major flaw: Ads and
campaigns without sex appeal often simply go unnoticed. We would love
nothing more than to talk about animal suffering, telling people how foxes
and raccoon dogs killed for their fur are often bludgeoned to death or have
their skin ripped off while they’re still fully conscious, or how fish
suffer excruciating decompression when they are yanked from the ocean
depths, and have them listen. But unfortunately people turn off and simply
don’t listen. The worst thing that a social justice movement campaign can be
is silent. Time and time again, protests featuring fully-clothed people
cramped in cages to demonstrate the suffering that monkeys bound for
experimentation endure on long haul flights, or activists dressed in chicken
costumes to protest KFC’s lack of animal welfare standards, never grab the
headlines, garner attention, or get TV airtime as ones with sex appeal do.”

So sounds to me that, in light of the evidence, PETA insists it’s OK to treat women like…… oh, I dunno, animals? 


Related articles:

Surprise, PETA! Sex Doesn’t Sell at

Peeling back the layers, sexist ads don’t work in the Canberra Times

35 thoughts on “Does Sex Sell Ethical Behavior?

  1. A very good point and they may be trying to target men and get them interested in a cause but at the same time they are making female supporters feel uncomfortable and perhaps less likely to support them too. What they need to do is shock people with the real pictures of what is really going on and if that doesn’t bring in the support then those people aren’t worth having to support a cause.

    ~ Amy

  2. Crazy..debase a woman to help an animal…messages are clearly very odd here…may I just say that a man who is attracted to a sexualised image in these forms is highly likely not that mentality to be an animal rights advocate. As a woman I would find this repugnant and be seeking to find the causal factors behind men being less likely to be animal activists rather than drag us back to the dark ages with campaigns that really won’t work.Just my opinion 🙂

  3. How many strikes does the ump have to call before you’re out? There are a plethora of enlightened, dedicated and hard working Animal Rights groups out there. Sadly, PETA just doesn’t seem to be one of them. Yes, they may be committed to their cause, but you need public respect in order to move your cause forward. PETA constantly finds themselves as either laughing stocks or worse – subjects of derision.

    1. And yet they seem to have an endless line of celebrities and young, affluent young women to pose for them in these sorts of ads, and plenty of money too. Where does that come from?

      As much as PETA’s tactics upset me, it upsets me ever more that so many people, especially young women, support them in their endeavors.

      1. Well, I can’t speak to the celebrities, but the young affluent women are models in the early stages of their careers. So they’re probably not all that affluent, and most likely are grateful for the jobs. Which raises the larger question – what percentage of your donation dollar actually goes to help animals? I raised 1000 dollars for Old Fella Burke County Animal Rescue – the group that helped us get Jack, and I know that every dime went to fostering, medical care, rescuing and sheltering of animals in crisis. The larger organizations spend a lot on salaries and advertising. I don’t really have a problem with that, if the organization can show me that they’re raising more dollars for animals, but when the operating budget exceeds the product delivered, I have issues. PETA – as far as I know – is only a lobbying group anyway. They don’t actually help animals at all. The focus of their mission is to create awareness and influence legislation.

      2. Lobbying isn’t a bad thing. i support lobbying efforts. Without the hard work they do, there will be no change in the laws and, just as important, in the way of thinking of the general public. But PETA isn’t going to change anyone’s way of thinking.

  4. Seems to me they are going backward. I know that when I look at their campaign it does not encourage me to support them. How can I support a group that does not respect women, a group that treats them as objects. I think it is narrow minded of them.

  5. Very interesting. I agree the study could’ve considered more factors, but there’s a clear distinction between sex “selling” and just “getting attention”.
    What’s the point if men notice the scantily-clad woman, but don’t internalize the actual message?
    And what’s the point even further if you alienate your female support (and it’s no secret that female support outweighs male support in animal activism)?
    Consumers are increasingly aware of messages being sent to them and know when they’re being manipulated – and it’s harder to gain (or re-gain) their trust if they feel they’ve been manipulated. Sure, it’s fine to use sex to sell when it’s appropriate (e.g. Victoria’s Secret is an obvious one), but it’s important to acknowledge it’s not always appropriate.
    Other studies show that provacative women are perceived as less intelligent, trustworthy, and moral – so wouldn’t PETA using sex actively work against them?
    Then again, does PETA actually work to sell anything anymore, or do they just try to drum up fleeting headlines and controversy? Hard to tell.

  6. I’m glad you’re a wonk. I’m pleased to see the research devoted to this very question.

    Everything I’ve read about brain science leads me to believe the PETA ads will not increase interest in their causes. However, it does arouse a lot of interest in PETA.

    Every nonprofit organization started to solve a problem should try to work themselves out of existence–solve the problem so they’re not needed anymore. But once a nonprofit gets huge and self-sustaining, they focus more on their own survival. Personally, I think that’s what PETA and many larger nonprofits are doing.

    Great post!

    1. I would have to agree with you there. I was once on some kinda list they have, and I quickly learned that whenever someone called PETA to ask for an investigation, they go right for the volunteer help. What a racket! Celebrities pose for them for free to get a tax write-off, they get all this publicity with their stunts, and they get to use whatever money they DO get on their porn channel.

  7. And considering how many animals a year PETA kills themselves, you have to wonder where their priorities are.

    1. Ya know, that tired old talking point that you got from a lobbyist for the puppy mill industry just doesn’t fly here. There are many reasons to not like PETA. How about doing some homework and finding your OWN reason.

  8. This stuff makes me HISSING MAD!! And what was that woman thinking when she posed like that (while pregnant)? Did she give any thought to how her Creature might feel when it eventually grows up and sees its mother like that!??

    I don’t mind protesting and making a statement, but I think Theres a right way and a wrong way to do it… HISS!!


  9. Not a fan of PETA personally, so it doesn’t surprise me that they don’t want to acknowledge that their ads do the opposite of what they should. What they really should do is show pictures of people and animals and show how much DNA we share with the animal to prove the point that we are animals but we can make a difference in the suffering of animals.

  10. I do not agree with how PETA does things and I am skeptical with what their goal is. Heard some pretty bad things on how the animals they take in are killed? Putting rumours aside, the idea with PETA is to go big or go home. They want to cause controversy, and I guess their motto is that bad press is still press. As long as we keep paying attention to these ridiculous ads and campaigns they put out, they’ll continue it. Is it helping animal protectionism? That is probably up for debate.
    But great post!

  11. PETA has gotten WAY far away from what they STARTED. They have gotten out of the realm of reason.

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