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Ethics Case Studies
Using the ‘Holocaust’ Metaphor

WHAT: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is a nonprofit animal rights organization known for its controversial approach to communications and public relations. In 2003, PETA launched a new campaign, named “Holocaust on Your Plate,” that compares the slaughter of animals for human use to the murder of 6 million Jews in WWII. The campaign centers around the power of emotion, and Lisa Lange, the vice president of PETA communications, stated that “The idea for the effort came from the late Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote: ‘In relation to them [animals], all people are Nazis; for them it is an eternal Treblinka’ — a death camp in Poland” (CNN, 2003). A Jewish PETA member funded the campaign, but this has not lessened the backlash from the Jewish community toward the set of images.

“Holocaust on Your Plate” juxtaposes 60-square-foot visual displays of animals in slaughterhouses with scenes of Nazi concentration camps. Lange, quoted above, explains that the campaign “Is shocking, startling, and very hard to look at. We're attacking the mind-set that condones the slaughter of animals” (CNN, 2003). In 2003, the controversial set of images was released at an exhibit in San Diego, California, and a few months later, a more graphic version was released in Berlin, Germany. The Central Council of Jews in Germany sued PETA in 2004 for the campaign, and in 2009, the German Supreme Court banned the images from the country. In November 2012, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg voted to uphold the previous Supreme Court ruling, which had banned the campaign.

Germany’s PETA group is currently appealing the European Court’s vote to uphold the court ruling, fighting for their right to display their campaign based on the fundamental principles of free speech. The United States Anti-Defamation League and several other American human rights groups continue to condemn the campaign as well.

Question: Is “Holocaust on Your Plate” ethically wrong or a truthful comparison?

WHO: Ingrid Newkirk, the CEO of PETA, ultimately made the decision to release the controversial campaign, and did not address the heated, angry emotions that arose surrounding the images for nearly two years after the campaign’s release in 2003. With her decision to run the PR Campaign, her reputation, as well as the reputation of PETA, is at risk of being negatively affected.

Abraham Foxman, the U.S. Anti-Defamation League national director and a Holocaust survivor, is one of many members of the American Jewish community who were highly offended by PETA’s campaign.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany represents another sector of the international Jewish community that took great offense to the campaign, suing PETA in 2004 with the support of several human rights groups.

Germany’s Supreme Court became involved in the case in 2009, banning the campaign from the country, and the European Court of Human Rights’ decision in 2012 to uphold the ruling is still being fought by PETA.

Consumers of media messages, both in the United States and Germany, also play a role in the case, as their perception of “Holocaust on your Plate” images greatly affect their view towards PETA and the organization’s main goals. As consumers, the decision on how the case is handled will be a deciding factor on whether or not to support the organization.

WHY: A Public Relations representative for PETA, alongside the CEO of the company, justified the campaign by describing it on CNN as “The very same mind-set that made the Holocaust possible — that we can do anything we want to those we decide are 'different or inferior' — is what allows us to commit atrocities against animals every single day.” In these regards, PETA argues that it is making its argument based upon principles of truth. PETA essentially claims that its campaign, although provocative, uses a comparison relating the murder of Jews and animals in a truthful and justified manner.

When examined under a deontological lens, it is arguable that PETA’s PR campaign has done nothing wrong — protected under freedom of speech, PETA’s communications team and CEO claim their campaign is legal and ethically sound, since it is rooted in fact and historical data, both from the Holocaust and slaughter house records. PETA argues that the comparison between the murder of Jews and animals is justified, due to the inherent and quantifiable nature of the slaughtering of innocent lives. However, when considering the case by applying the principles of deontology, the answer could also be argued in simpler, contrasting terms: the mass murder of millions of humans cannot, and should not be compared to a chicken or pig, and is inherently wrong.

This case can also be considered from a teleological perspective, placing the argument on a different plane for ethical discussion. There are two main outcomes that may arise from this case: 1) PETA’s campaign spreads its pathos-driven message on animal rights successfully, limiting the number of animals consumed by humans, or 2) The campaign angers audiences to a degree that PETA loses the respect and trust that is needed for any form of audience support to ensue. Thus far in the case, the second consequence seems more likely, as the overly emotional, insensitive campaign has not motivated people, but for the most part driven them away.

Germany’s High Court stated in 2009 that the “Holocaust on a Plate” made "The fate of the victims of the Holocaust appear banal and trivial.” The consequences of conveying human suffering to a human audience, whether or not they are rooted in truth, may cause more harm than overall good.

HOW: While PETA’s claims may be justified, and the comparison between the murder of humans and animals deemed quantifiable, the harm caused by the campaign overrides the intended message of the PR plan, and should not be used. A mix of legal questioning, high emotional ties, and extremely poor taste make this an ethical case of high stakes and varied opinions, however a decision remains clear: PETA’s “Holocaust on a Plate” is ethically wrong. The mass-murder of millions in a catastrophic historical event should not be utilized as a communication tool to gain support for one’s organization. The comparison, while arguably similar in quantifiable terms, is disgustingly insensitive and takes advantage of others suffering to make a point.

PETA should utilize a different strategy to convey their message. The CEO of PETA will receive better press, and the overall reputation of the already controversial organization will improve. Stated backlash from numerous human rights groups and the Anti-Defamation League, as well the surely unstated unease of many audience sectors, is not worth a strong emotional response that could drive audience support of PETA.

DECISION: The “Holocaust on a Plate” PR campaign is ethically wrong: a mass-murder of millions should not be utilized as a communication tool to gain support for one’s organization. It should not be used to convey PETA’s message, no matter how strong the emotional argument.

— by Jill Hamilton, University of Denver

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