By Corey Lee Wrenn, M.S., A.B.D. Ph.D.
Trigger Warning: Sexism
Exciting news everyone! Two researchers in Australia sought to test PETA’s hypothesis that sex sells animal rights:
Images of scantily clad women are used by advertisers to make products more attractive to men. This “sex sells” approach is increasingly employed to promote ethical causes, most prominently by the animal-rights organization PETA. Yet sexualized images can dehumanize women, leaving an unresolved paradox – is it effective to advertise an ethical cause using unethical means? In Study 1, a sample of Australian male undergraduates (N = 82) viewed PETA advertisements containing either sexualized or non-sexualized images of women. Intentions to support the ethical organization were reduced for those exposed to the sexualized advertising, and this was explained by their dehumanization of the sexualized women, and not by increased arousal. Study 2 used a mixed-gender community sample from the United States (N = 280), replicating this finding and extending it by showing that behaviors helpful to the ethical cause diminished after viewing the sexualized advertisements, which was again mediated by the dehumanization of the women depicted. Alternative explanations relating to the reduced credibility of the sexualized women and their objectification were not supported. When promoting ethical causes, organizations may benefit from using advertising strategies that do not dehumanize women.
Overall, these findings are the first to demonstrate that sexualized images that dehumanize women reduce concern for ethical behavior in a domain unrelated to gender relations and sex.
Salon reports that PETA dug in their heels in response to the research, insisting naked women get the most media attention. So, perhaps we are misrepresenting PETA’s hypothesis. They’re using naked women not to raise awareness and stop animal exploitation, but to raise money and awareness about PETA. The “sex sells” tactic, I have argued, is indicative of the non-profit industrial complex, where compromised messages and fundraising are prioritized over actual social change. Really, PETA is ignoring this research even though it has been demonstrated that their tactics do not help Nonhuman Animals. They will continue objectifying women because it “grabs the headlines.” Can it be any clearer that this is not about social change effectiveness?
Of course, while this study demonstrates that there is no effectiveness, there is also a huge body of research that demonstrates that the sexual objectification of women is directly linked to violence against women and the devaluation of women.
This post originally appeared on the Academic Abolitionist Vegan.
Ms. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is an instructor of Sociology and graduate student at Colorado State University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory.