The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), stoked controversy over an ad they said was banned from airing during Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, February 2, 2020. The ad has been criticized as trivializing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement by using imagery that intentionally evokes the protests of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
PETA has a long history of releasing controversial ad campaigns. With its visual reference to the BLM protests, though, this ad drew on a subject that was already hotly debated among American football fans.
PETA’s #EndSpeciesism campaign
While the Super Bowl regularly draws over a hundred million viewers, this year’s broadcast was notable for what wasn’t on view. On Friday, January 31, PETA tweeted that a Super Bowl LIV ad produced for their “End Speciesism” campaign had been blocked from airing by the NFL.
In the animated ad, a variety of animals – including a horse, a bear, a dog and a bald eagle – can be seen kneeling on one knee while the US National Anthem is hummed in the background. The ad ends with the text, “Respect is the right of every living being”, followed by the hashtag, #EndSpeciesism.
In their subsequent press release regarding the ad, PETA said they are “challenging speciesism, which is a supremacist worldview that allows humans to disrespect other living, feeling beings.”
They also directly linked the “taking a knee” imagery of the ad to the protests of Colin Kaepernick (and others). When he was a player in the NFL, Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem, played prior to games in the US, to draw attention to police violence against black people.
Protesting for black lives
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, gained notoriety for the way he protested racial injustice. In explaining his protest at the time, Kaepernick said he would not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He went on to say, “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
This was in reference to the highly publicized deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (among other similar deaths), two black men who were killed by white police officers. In both cases, the white police officers involved in the killings faced no charges.
These deaths helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement that began in 2013. BLM is focused on fighting back against racial injustice and ensuring civil rights for black people and other people of color.
The NFL and Kaepernick’s protest
After the 2016 season in which Kaepernick’s 49ers went 2-14 in games, Kaepernick left the team but went unsigned by other teams. He has not played in the NFL since that season, though he had a private workout session with the league in November 2019.
Kaepernick received considerable criticism for his stance, which many football fans deemed “unpatriotic.” When Kaepernick was featured in a Nike ad campaign in 2018, angry football fans cut off the company’s swoosh logo from their apparel in protest.
During the 2016 season, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he supports his players’ right to protest for change in society, but he believed “very strongly in patriotism” and didn’t “necessarily agree with what [Kaepernick] is doing.”
Backlash to the ad
The Root, an online publication focused on black culture and causes, harshly criticized the ad, saying it “disrespected Colin Kaepernick’s protest against injustice, and made a mockery of 400 years of systemic oppression by comparing Black lives to grizzly bears and bald eagles.”
Response to PETA’s January 31 tweet included many who argued that comparing the plight of animals to black people was disrespectful. One response stated, “I am not too keen on a gesture to raise awareness for black victims of police brutality being reappropriated for animals.”
PETA’s history of controversy
This is hardly the first time a PETA ad campaign has received criticism. The Jerusalem Post pointed out that a 2003 PETA campaign “compared the suffering of Jewish people in the holocaust to that of livestock.”
Various PETA ads have also featured nudity, which has led some to label the campaigns sexist. Another ad campaign that linked autism to consuming milk was pulled after complaints.
PETA has also drawn criticism for its history of euthanizing animals. It was reported that the organization kills most of the animals it takes into its shelter. In 2017, PETA agreed to pay $49,000 to a Virginia family after it mistakenly seized the unattended dog of a nine-year-old child and euthanized it.PETA has argued their practice of euthanasia is done out of compassion for animals that have been abused by their owners or abandoned on the streets. They say it keeps animals from facing “terror, pain, and a prolonged death.”