An email for PETA, seen on 30 May 2017, with the subject line “Help Protect Dogs from Slaughter”. In the body copy it said “Five times - that’s how many times an abattoir worker struck a small dog with a heavy club before the terrified pup collapsed next to a pile of dead dogs, each of whom had been bludgeoned”. Beneath the text was an animated GIF loop of the animal mentioned in the text; the animal was hit by a factory worker and collapsed on the floor. As described in the body copy, the scene also showed a large pile of dead animals, pools of blood and other material on the floor. The GIF played automatically when the email was opened.
The complainant, who said they received no warning about the content in the email before they read it and saw the imagery, challenged whether the ad was likely to cause unjustified fear and distress and was offensive.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation said the ad was sent to nearly 830,000 people who gave the charity permission to contact them. They said while many people would be appalled that dogs were slaughtered for their skins, the ad was meant to increase awareness of the topic and that readers who saw the email’s subject line would have expected it to contain upsetting text and images.
PETA said many people who viewed their photographs or videos would be upset by them, but the ad was designed to motivate people to campaign against animal abuse and ads that contained graphic images were more likely to solicit donations or petition signatures.
PETA said it made no sense for them to offend their supporters and that their communications were both appropriate and necessary in meeting their charitable mission.
The ASA noted that PETA aimed to raise awareness of the issue of animal cruelty, and specifically in the email the issue of the slaughter of dogs for their skins, and that such a distressing subject was likely to cause discomfort when presented in any medium. Nevertheless, we took the view that any inherent discomfort related to the topic ought to be balanced by the worthwhile purpose of raising awareness of it.
We noted that PETA only sent the ad to readers who gave the charity permission to contact them. Although the complainant told us they had only ever received PETA emails with simple, non-violent images, we considered that most readers who signed up to receive emails from PETA were likely to be aware that they sometimes used graphic and shocking images in their marketing. The subject line of the email also indicated its contents were likely to address a disturbing and upsetting topic, which we considered provided some warning to those who chose to open it.
We noted the GIF was taken from a longer video depicting the killing of and cruelty towards dogs. While the images were undoubtedly disturbing, and the full video even more so, we considered that the inherent discomfort was balanced by the worthwhile purpose of raising awareness. We considered the footage was an integral element of the ad and the choice to not include it would have diminished the ad’s ability to raise awareness to the topic.
While we acknowledged the ad contained violent and shocking images, we considered that because it had been sent to those signed up to receive emails from PETA, and because the subject line provided a degree of warning regarding the content of the email, it was not likely to cause serious or widespread offence or to cause fear or distress without justifiable reason.
We investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.
Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material.
The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code. and 4.2 4.2 Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention. (Harm and offence), but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.