A billboard for PETA, seen in Cleethorpes in late April 2023, featured an image of a fishmonger holding a fish alongside text that stated, “SEA THINGS” when viewed from the front. When viewed from the side, the image shifted to reveal a dead cat in place of the fish, while the text transitioned to “SEA THINGS IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT”. Underneath, further text stated, “RESPECT ALL LIFE. GO VEGAN” above the PETA logo.
The ASA received ten complaints.
1. All the complainants challenged whether the ad’s depiction of a dead cat was excessively distressing, and likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
2. Three complainants also challenged whether the ad had been responsibly targeted because it appeared in a public place where children could see it.
1. & 2. PETA stated that the intent behind the ad was to promote veganism by challenging the societal tendency to treat animals merely as a means of fulfilling human desires, and to question the widespread assumption that certain species were more deserving of compassion than others. They felt that those preconceptions were evident from the complaints themselves, given the ad had featured two dead animals, while only the cat’s depiction had been seen as having the potential to cause distress. They emphasised their view that there was no rational or ethical difference between eating fish or cats, since both were species of sentient beings capable of suffering. They referred to research supporting that fish exhibited a substantial degree of cognitive complexity, particularly in relation to their emotional range, memory and communicative capacities.
They said that the cat’s portrayal was not graphic and had been carefully designed to minimise any risk of distress. It was not depicted with any external wounds, or other outward indicators of injury or suffering. If not for the ad’s wider context, viewers might even have received the impression that the cat was sleeping peacefully. In line with that, they believed that the image itself was unlikely to cause distress, and that those who had taken issue with the ad were most likely to have done so due to broader disagreement with its message.
They said that the ad’s portrayal of dead animals was justified by the urgency with which society ought to address the moral and environmental harms linked to commercial fishing. To support that, they cited a range of figures suggesting that those harms were severe.
As for the ad’s targeting, they stated that the choice of image meant that the ad was suitable for display in an untargeted medium. They added that children frequently encountered dead animals in everyday contexts, such as the supermarket, and deserved to be exposed to viewpoints that challenged their assumptions about the morality of meat consumption. They added that the ad’s content was far more likely to prompt healthy discussion between children and adults than to cause distress or offence.
Global, the owner of the billboard site, said that, prior to the ad’s publication, they had sought a view from CAP’s Copy Advice team, who advised them that the ad was unlikely to breach the Code. They said the ad did not breach their own internal guidelines, that they had not received any direct complaints about the ad, and that the billboard ad was no longer up for display.
1. & 2. Not upheld
The ASA acknowledged that some viewers would find the ad unsettling or distasteful. However, we considered that viewers would understand that the ad was for an animal justice charity, promoting the vegan diet, and that it aimed to challenge societal norms regarding the moral significance of meat consumption.
We considered that the cat’s depiction was neither gruesome, nor shocking, and was unlikely to be considered particularly realistic by most viewers. On that basis, we considered that viewers, including children, were likely to regard the image as relatively mild. For that reason, we concluded that the ad was not excessively distressing, or likely to cause serious or widespread offence, and had not been irresponsibly targeted.
We investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 1.3 (Social responsibility), 4.1 and 4.2 (Harm and offence), but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.