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Are there Bigger Fish to Fry in the Struggle for Animal Rights?

CASE STUDY: PETA’s Campaign against Anti-Animal Language

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twobirds

PETA / TeachKind / Modified

Idioms are everywhere in the English language. To most, they are playful and innocuous additions to our conversations. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, disagrees. On December 4, 2018 the group took to the internet to let English speakers know the error of their ways. The high-profile—and highly controversial—animal welfare group used their Twitter and Instagram accounts to advocate for a removal of “speciesism from… daily conversations” (PETA, 2018). “Speciesism” is the unreasonable and harmful privileging of one species—typically humans—over other species of animals. Like racism or sexism, it is a bias that PETA wants us to shun and abandon in our actions. Their campaign, however, took the new step of targeting anti-animal language in common idioms and suggested animal friendly alternatives. When knocking out tasks, one should say they were able to “feed two birds with one scone,” rather than “kill two birds with one stone.” “Take the bull by the horns” was replaced with “take the flower by the thorns,” and “more than one way to skin a cat” was replaced by “more than one way to peel a potato.” Instead of being the member of the household to “bring home the bacon,” a so-called breadwinner might “bring home the bagels” (PETA, 2018). As one Twitter user questioned, “surely [PETA] [has] bigger fish to fry than this” (Wang, 2018)?

The organization argued that “our society has worked hard to eliminate racist, homophobic, and ableist language and the prejudices that usually accompany it” (PETA, 2018). To those offering bigger fish, they responded that “suggesting that there are more pressing social justice issues that require more immediate attention is selfish” (PETA, 2018). Since certain language may perpetuate discriminatory ideals, PETA encouraged the public to understand the harms and values implied by speciesist language. This type of language “denigrates and belittles nonhuman animals, who are interesting, feeling individuals” (PETA, 2018). To remove speciesist language from your daily conversation is potentially a simple change and, PETA would claim, a far kinder way to use language.

However, some would argue that PETA’s choice to liken anti-animal language to other problematic language—slurs based on race, sexuality, or ability—is a step too far. Many in the public voiced concerns with PETA’s efforts, particularly the implicit equation of violence against humans with violence against animals. A journalist from The Root, Monique Judge, explained, “racist language is inextricably tied to racism, racial terrorism, and racial violence… it is not the same thing as using animals in a turn of phrase or enjoying a BLT” (Chow, 2018). Political consultant Shermichael Singleton agreed with Judge, calling PETA’s statement “extremely ignorant” and “blatantly irresponsible” given the direct ties between racist language and physical violence (Chow, 2018).

Furthermore, others critiqued PETA’s suggested idioms, as either still harmful to animals or themselves harmful to other groups. For example, the Washington Post wondered if scones were really a healthy option for birds (Wang, 2018). Similarly, one Twitter user contested that feeding a horse that’s already fed would be bad for the horse, it was potentially hypocritical to argue animals are sacred and not plants, and that “bring home the bagels” could be anti-Semitic (Chow, 2018). Another Twitter user urged—tongue firmly in cheek—that taking by the flower by the thorns “sounds like some blatant anti-plantism … which is just more speciesism” (Moye, 2018).

As the public voiced both serious and sarcastic disapproval of PETA’s campaign, the animal welfare organization stood strong on its message. In response to likening anti-animal language with racist, homophobic, and ableist language, PETA’s spokeswoman Ashley Byrne said, “‘Encouraging people to be kind’ was not ‘a competition.’” Furthermore, Byrne commented “our compassion does not need to be limited,” asserting that “teaching people to be kind to animals only helps in terms of encouraging them to practice kindness in general” (Wang, 2018). As society is becoming more progressive about animal welfare in other ways, PETA wants the public to use language that encourages kindness to animals. As PETA put it in their original tweet, “words matter” (Moye, 2018). Broadening the recognition of this truth, PETA argues, could be helpful in alleviating the suffering of humans, not just animals.

While PETA’s campaign seems to focus on an individualized and language-conscious approach toward improving animal welfare, their comparison of so-called anti-animal language to the struggles of marginalized groups provoked wary reactions. The organization has a long line of radical and controversial campaigns promoting animal welfare, making it difficult to broadly assess their methods as helpful or counterproductive. Perhaps breaking into the social media attention economy was part of this campaign’s purpose. Regardless of its intentions, PETA’s latest campaign has prompted its audience to consider the nature of harmful language in social conventions, and whether or not the audience is living up to their own standards. Leaving talk of skinning cats aside, perhaps PETA has succeeded in getting us to realize there’s more than one way to turn a phrase.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are speakers obligated to make relatively small changes to improve the world through language, even if those improvements seem minor?
  2. What are the ethical issues with equating anti-animal and, for example, anti-Black language? Are these the same or different than those of comparing other forms of human oppression?
  3. Is there a way to differentiate racist/sexist language use and anti-animal language use without valuing human life over that of animal life?
  4. What responsibility do humans have to animals? Should this responsibility manifest itself through language or other means first?
  5. When, if ever, is it ethical to intentionally provoke controversy to draw attention to a political or moral issue?

Further Information:

Chow, Lorraine. “PETA Wants Us to Stop Using ‘Anti-Animal Language’.” EcoWatch, 5 December 2018. Available at: https://www.ecowatch.com/peta-twitter-anti-animal-language-2622492677.html

PETA. “‘Bring Home the Bagels’: We Suggest Anti-Speciesist Language—Many Miss the Point” PETA, 7 December 2018. Available at: https://www.peta.org/blog/bring-home-the-bagels/

Moye, David. “PETA Gets Dogged For Tweet Demanding End To ‘Anti-Animal Language’.” HuffPost, 5 December 2018. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/peta-anti-animal-language-tweet_n_5c071400e4b0a6e4ebd97522

Wang, Amy B. “PETA Wants to Change ‘Anti-Animal’ Sayings, but the Internet Thinks They’re Feeding a Fed Horse.” The Washington Post, 6 December 2018. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/12/05/peta-wants-change-anti-animal-sayings-internet-thinks-theyre-feeding-fed-horse/

Authors:

Sophia Park, Dakota Park-Ozee, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 13, 2020


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu.

 

Actors Playing Protestors in Real Life

CASE STUDY: Bollywood and the Ethics of Celebrity Politics in India

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DeepikaPadukone

   Images: Twitter

The student of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are engaged in ongoing protests in the aftermath of a mob attack on campus. For months, students at JNU have protested “an announced rise in fees as well as a new citizenship law, which critics say discriminates against Muslims and erodes India’s secular constitution” (Reuters, 2020). On Sunday, January 5, 2020 a group of masked men stormed campus with sticks, injuring at least 30 students. Following the attack, students, including those harmed, continued to rally.

And on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, an unexpected supporter joined them: Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone. Padukone did not make any speeches or draw attention to herself, offering quiet solidarity with her presence, leaving and arriving with discretion. This, however, did not prevent a social media firestorm, “a frenzy that only a Bollywood star can whip up in movie-mad India” (Biswas, 2020). Padukone’s presence provoked mixed reactions among Indians and Bollywood fans. The tensions have led to simultaneous hashtags supporting Padukone and calling for a boycott of her latest movie released January 10, 2020.

Student leaders like former JNU Student’s Union president Kanhaiya Kumar thanked her for her “solidarity and support,” telling her “you might be abused or trolled today, but history will remember you for your courage and standing by the idea of India” (Biswas, 2020). Supporters even promised to watch her new film—“Chhapaak”—about acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, which Padukone both acted in and produced. Actor Anurag Kashyap called for “all those who stand against the violence go to @bookmyshow” and purchase tickets (Reuters, 2020).

Yet some of Padukone’s peers dismissed her. Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, a filmmaker and supporter of India’s controversial conservative Prime Minister, Narendra Modi,  argued “by standing with this small community of anti-India students she has sent a message that she doesn’t support 98% India-loving students” (Biswas, 2020). The Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister, Sachin Pilot, condemned boycott attempts; he argued “it’s a very narrow mindset if any actor or actress is not in your favour, then you talk about boycotting their films” (PTI, 2020). For some, the timing of the controversial move enhances perceptions of how much Padukone risked in acting on her convictions; with the release of “Chhapaak” looming, a lot is on the line. For others, the timing reads as a publicity stunt to promote the film, tweeting “what a brazen [and] cheap tactic to promote a film” (Reuters, 2020).

Stunt or not, Padukone is, on the whole, receiving more support than criticism with her follower counts increasing and critics calling “Chhapaak” an “important film to watch” (Pereira, 2020). The same internet explosion might not happen for another artist, but Padukone has tens of millions of followers on both Instagram and Twitter and in 2016 was ranked by Forbes as the 10th highest paid actress in the world. A big name brings big drama.

The JNU protests were not the first time Padukone faced controversy for her personal or profession life. Before the release of her film “Padmaavat,” members of the fringe group Rajput Karni Sena called for a nationwide ban, vandalized theaters, and threatened the actress physically. Member Mahipal Singh Makrana said in a video statement that “if need be, we will do to Deepika what Lakshman did to Shurpanakha,” meaning cut off her nose (Pereira, 2020). Amidst the same controversy, a mid-level media coordinator of Modi’s ‎Bharatiya Janata Party reportedly put a bounty on Padukone’s head.

The case of Padukone and the Delhi protests brings up the larger issue: how involved should celebrities be in protests or persuasive campaigns? Celebrities hold much power in the public realm, but it is unclear that they possess any special insight into situations of social injustice. Alternatively, their power comes with a price. Since they depend on publicity to gain followers, fans, and audiences, negative publicity due to issues unrelated to their films might harm their ability to continue making popular or successful media artifacts. Despite the common perception that Bollywood stars often avoid politics, the Padukone case highlights the ways the two are more frequently intersecting. Director Mahesh Bhatt explains the struggle between the Bollywood and political power, arguing a Bollywood filmmaker is “a vulnerable animal, especially when his film inches toward release. You can blackmail and make him kneel down” (Biswas, 2020). But Bollywood celebrities might bring attention and energy to situations and causes that otherwise might go unnoticed. Padukone surely brought more attention to the Delhi protests from the Indian media, and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi often uses the power of other Bollywood figures to his advantage, taking selfies and spending time with supportive members of the filmmaking elite. Given the risks and potential uses of Bollywood celebrity status, India is confronting more and more the question of when Bollywood drama and power should yield to the power of ordinary politics.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should filmmakers and actors consider economic repercussions before speaking out on political issues or controversies?
  2. What role should artists have in shaping political discourse? Do artists and celebrities have different responsibilities than ordinary protestors?
  3. Is it more ethical for celebrities with great influence to avoid or embrace politics?
  4. What are the ethical issues in boycotting or “cancelling” celebrities for their politics?

Further Information:

Soutik Biswas, “Deepika Padukone: Has Bollywood found a political voice?” BBC News, January 8, 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51030991

Karen Pereira, “‘Padmaavat’ to ‘Chhapaak’: 4 times Deepika Padukone stood her ground in the face of threats, violence and controversy.” Times of India, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/padmaavat-to-chhapaak-4-times-deepika-padukone-stood-her-ground-in-the-face-of-threats-violence-and-controversy/articleshow/73172040.cms

PTI, “Deepika Padukone’s JNU visit: Sachin Pilot condemns ‘Chhapaak’ boycott, says more people will watch the movie new.” The Economic Times, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/deepika-padukones-jnu-visit-sachin-pilot-condemns-chhapaak-boycott-says-more-people-will-watch-the-movie-now/articleshow/73167513.cms

Reuters, “Bollywood actor faces boycott calls after joining student protest.” The Guardian, January 8, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/08/deepika-padukone-bollywood-actor-faces-boycott-calls-after-joining-student-protest

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
March 19, 2020


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Changing Comments or Changing Minds?

CASE STUDY: Protesting Censorship in Pakistan through Algorithmic Alterations

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DTpic-600x129On April 17, 2016, the Daily Times—a major English-language newspaper in Pakistan—published an editorial on the nation’s controversial blasphemy law. The law, according to Human Rights Watch, carries a mandatory death penalty for blaspheming against Islam. The article was published in the wake of renewed controversy over Aasia Bibi, the first woman ever convicted and sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in November 2010 for an incident in 2009. All told, no person convicted of blasphemy has been executed, but 53 people have been killed in extra-judicial violence (Ijaz, 2016).

Given the controversial nature of the law and intentionally provocative publication of the editorial, the Daily Times anticipated a deluge of comments from online readers. The article was ideal for launching the “Free My Voice” campaign. Most contemporary news outlets have websites and the majority of story webpages include a comment feature where users can post feedback, opinions, or questions below a piece of reporting. While there are some sites that moderate comments—deleting those deemed inappropriate or editing for clarity—it is not common practice to meaningfully alter the reader’s message.  That is exactly what happened on the Daily Times editorial. The Daily Times teamed up with ad agency Grey Singapore and free speech organization ARTICLE 19 to launch the “Free My Voice” campaign as a way to protest restrictions on press liberty.

When users tried to comment on the blasphemy editorial, an algorithm automatically reversed the meaning of their post. For example, a comment written to say “the author is correct. The current laws in Pakistan are a distortion of Islam” would instead read “the author is wrong. The current laws in Pakistan aren’t a distortion of Islam” (Smith, 2016). No matter how many times a comment was typed, it would reverse meaning. Readers could not leave a comment that accurately reflected their position. Eventually, potential posters were “led to a landing page to sign a petition or donate toward the Free My Voice campaign” (Hicks, 2016).

According to the Daily Times, the “statements were altered, real-time, on the medium they would least expect censorship to happen—the comment box.” They furthered that the point of the program was to make commenters “experience censorship first-hand to make them feel the frustration of what it is like to lose [a] fundamental right” (Smith, 2016). In a story they published about the project, the Daily Times explained censorship is common in Pakistan; it is ranked as the fourth most dangerous country for journalists by the International Federation of Journalists. They also deem the blasphemy law one of the “country’s biggest threats to free speech” (Smith, 2016).

In addition to the blasphemy law, the project was a response to a newly approved Electronic Crimes Bill, which gave the Pakistani government greater power to block the spread of information, potentially arbitrarily. Tahmina Rahman, Regional Director for ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh and South Asia, expressed hope the “collaboration will demonstrate the pernicious nature of censorship that so often goes unseen but has untold consequences for society” (ARTICLE 19, 2016). Shehryar Taseer, the Daily Times publisher, justified the project saying “we all have to take a stance against censorship,” which is becoming “a global issue” (Smith, 2016).

The idea was to make citizens who might take their freedom of speech for granted experience the same censorship that stifles the press, motivating them to fight back on behalf of journalists. However, there is a potentially unacknowledged irony in censoring citizens engaged with the news to highlight the problem of censoring the press. Citizens are not being directly silenced—prevented from speaking—but censored through forced alteration of their words, words still attributed to them through a username and photo next to the posted comment. The project risks falling into the same ethical trap it claims to oppose, thus alienating citizens who might otherwise support them, especially in a climate where some comments or their engineered opposites may be politically controversial. The Daily Times project could put citizens in risky social or legal territory. “Free My Voice” potentially strips readers of their autonomy in an effort to regain journalistic integrity. While many would agree that the pursuit of a free press is admirable, some might worry about the ethical value of the tactics used by the Daily Times and its collaborators. To what extent can actual and unsuspecting readers be used in a news outlet’s effort to bring public attention to common, but sometimes unnoticed, curtailments of media freedom?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the “Free My Voice” discussion harmfully limit discussion of the blasphemy law? What are potential worries about using an algorithm to change the meaning of reader comments?
  2. Should press organizations like the Daily Times protest censorship so directly if it risks further restrictions of their freedoms and ability to provide the public with information?
  3. What obligation, if any, do citizens have to donate, sign petitions, or otherwise participate in protests by journalists?
  4. Is censoring, or forcefully altering, citizen comments an ethical way to critique government censorship?
  5. Do acts of protest have to have the consent of all involved, or all affected by the protest?

Further Information:

ARTICLE 19, “Pakistan: ARTICLE 19 and Daily Times bring censorship home for online readers.” ARTICLE 19, April 17, 2016. Available at: https://www.article19.org/resources/pakistan-article-19-and-daily-times-bring-censorship-home-for-online-readers/

Robin Hicks, “Agency’s algorithm flips sentiment of comments in article about Pakistan’s blasphemy law.” Mumbrella Asia, May 30, 2016. Available at: https://www.mumbrella.asia/2016/05/grey-singapore-idea-for-pakistan-newspaper-inverts-sentiment-of-comments-for-press-freedom-message

Saroop Ijaz, “Facing the death penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan.” Human Rights Watch, October 12, 2016. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/12/facing-death-penalty-blasphemy-pakistan

Sydney Smith, “Pakistani newspaper alters readers’ comments to make censorship point.” iMediaEthics, May 31, 2016. Available at: https://www.imediaethics.org/pakistani-newspaper-alters-readers-comments-make-censorship-point/

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 20, 2020


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Just Do It?

CASE STUDY: Nike, Social Justice, and the Ethics of Branding

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shoes

ViktorCylo / CC BY 3.0 / Modified

In September of 2018, Nike unveiled their 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, featuring prominent athletes such as Serena Williams, LeBron James, Lacey Baker, and Odell Beckham Jr. Also featured in the series is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback turned activist Colin Kaepernick, who has been a controversial figure since early August of 2016 when he protested racial injustice in America by sitting and later kneeling during the national anthem at the start of football games. Kaepernick’s Nike advertisement, which he posted to social media sites on September 3, 2018, displays a close-up image of his face with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” written across the image. Some have praised the advertisement as taking a stand in the nationwide debate over the state of minority rights while others have been concerned with Nike’s movement into the arena of political advocacy.

Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand marketing for North America, defended the company’s featuring of Kaepernick, who has not played in the NFL since the 2016 season when he refused a contract with the 49ers: “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.” Additionally, many high-profile athletes and celebrities have voiced their support for Nike and Kaepernick, including LeBron James and Serena Williams, both outspoken figures about social justice in their own right. “He’s done a lot for the African American community, and its cost him a lot. It’s sad,” Williams said of Kaepernick. “Having a huge company back him,” she continued, “could be a controversial reason for this company, but they’re not afraid. I feel like that was a really powerful statement to a lot of other companies.”

Other observers see Nike’s move from the commercial to the political as potentially concerning. Michael Serazio worries that this is just another sophisticated trick from a corporate powerhouse: “Getting us to think we’re making a statement by buying Nike is the long con advertising has played, and it has played it well.” Increasingly, brands are giving in to a recent demand for politicization, forcing consumers to question the political participation of various corporations. Some argue that Nike is using a popular movement to increase its own sales, and taking advantage of the prestige and celebrity status of its minority athletes while doing so. Another worry is that it distracts attention from how Nike products are made, often by workers in difficult working conditions in developing countries. As Serazio puts it, the new campaign risks diverting our focus from “the marginalized who make stuff rather than the posturing it affords those privileged enough to own it.”

The advertisement campaign is a risky move for Nike, who might garner heightened attention to its products and brand, but who also runs the risk of alienating part of its consumer base by becoming too politicized. Swaths of the football-watching public, and public at large, are divided by the anthem protests carried on by Kaepernick and others. By featuring the originator of this series of protests, many fans might view Nike as standing with black athletes and their concerns. Yet others may view the advertisement as an attempt to profit off of a protest that strikes at the heart of patriotic values that some hold dear. Some owners of Nike products even illustrated their disgust with the campaign by burning their shoes, and then subsequently posting the flaming images on social media. So far, however, Nike has not sacrificed anything due to the gamble that this advertising campaign represents: Nike stock is up 5% since the advertisement hit the public, representing $6 billion increase in Nike’s market value.

Nike’s campaign was meant to garner attention and make a statement on its 30th anniversary. It succeeded at accomplishing these goals. But many are still wondering: was Nike primarily interested in taking a courageous stand on an important political issue of our time, or were they simply using Kaepernick as a clever ploy to sell more shoes?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should a company like Nike get involved in matters of political controversy and social justice?
  2. Is Nike misusing Kaepernick and the NFL protests in its recent campaign? If you judge this to be the case, what other ways could Nike do if they wanted to bring attention to these issues and protests?
  3. Do you think that these advertisements will hurt Nike’s brand or bottom line? Do you think this is an important ethical consideration for Nike?
  4. Should companies take stands on controversial debates orbiting around justice and the public good in their advertisement campaigns? Why or why not?
  5. Nike clearly has the ability—and right—to take a stand on this issue. What should the virtuous consumer do in reacting to Nike’s campaign? What about if they disagree with Nike’s stance?

Further Information:

Anderson, Mae. “Good for business? Nike gets political with Kaepernick ad.” September 4, 2018. Available at: https://www.apnews.com/6aaced14b24d4622aefeb44d3b17c2d6

Belvedere, Matthew J. “Sorkin: Nike’s Kaepernick ad decision was based on ‘attracting big name athletes’ who side with his cause.” September 7, 2018. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/07/sorkin-nike-kaepernick-ad-based-on-attracting-big-name-athletes.html

Boren, Cindy. “As Trump tweets, Colin Kaepernick shares new Nike ad that reportedly will air during NFL opener.” Washington Post. September 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2018/09/05/trump-says-nike-is-getting-absolutely-killed-over-colin-kaepernick-ad-renews-attack-on-nfl-players/

Reints, Renae. “Colin Kaepernick Pushes Nike’s Market Value Up $6 Billion, to an All-Time High.” Fortune. September 23, 2018. Available at: http://fortune.com/2018/09/23/nike-market-value-colin-kaepernick-ad/

Rovell, Darren. “Colin Kaepernick part of Nike’s 30th anniversary of ‘Just Do It’ campaign.” ESPN. September 3, 2018. Available at: http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/24568359/colin-kaepernick-face-nike-just-do-30th-anniversary-campaign

Serazio, Michael. “Nike isn’t trying to be ‘woke.’ It’s trying to sell shoes.” Washington Post. September 5, 2018. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/09/05/nike-isnt-trying-be-woke-its-trying-sell-shoes/

Authors:

Holland J. Smith & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
September 24, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen

Assistant Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

October 16, 2018


 


Dr. Gina Masullo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and the Assistant Director of the Center for Media Engagement, both at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the online conversation around the news and how it influences social, civic, and political engagement. She is the author of Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk and co-editor of Scandal in a Digital Age. She is currently writing her third book, The New Town Hall: Why We Engage Personally with Politicians. She spent 20 years as a newspaper journalist before becoming a professor.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


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Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Is Incivility Ever Ethical?

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen

Assistant Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin

October 16 (Tuesday)  ¦  3:30-4:30PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


The current debate over incivility in the public discourse often leaves out an important component – sometimes the most ethical choice is to speak out, even if some people view your speech as uncivil. The need to be civil at all costs can become a tool of the privileged to silence and symbolically annihilate the voices of those with less power in society, specifically women, people of color, or those from other marginalized groups. Media outlets can perpetuate this silencing by focusing on the “civility” – or lack thereof – of the message, rather than the content. Compounding this problem is the issue that people define what’s uncivil in varied ways – including everything from a raised voice to hate speech. UT Austin Assistant Professor Gina Masullo Chen will draw on potent examples from today’s headlines, including Colin Kaepernick’s “take-a-knee” protest during the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and some politicians’ refusal to speak to their angry constituents. Her argument is not that incivility is good. Rather, she asserts that sometimes the ethical cost of silence is greater than the normative threat to civil discourse from what some may perceive as incivility.

Dr. Gina Masullo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and the Assistant Director of the Center for Media Engagement, both at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the online conversation around the news and how it influences social, civic, and political engagement. She is the author of Online Incivility and Public Debate: Nasty Talk and co-editor of Scandal in a Digital Age. She is currently writing her third book, The New Town Hall: Why We Engage Personally with Politicians. She spent 20 years as a newspaper journalist before becoming a professor.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.


 

Sweet Justice?

CASE STUDY: Pepsi’s Controversial Use of Protest Iconography in Advertising

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pad1

Screen Capture of Pepsi Ad / Modified

Sometimes advertising catches a viewer’s attention and speaks to important needs of the present. In April 2017, Pepsi released what it thought was just such a timely commercial starring Kendall Jenner on YouTube. The commercial showed Jenner leaving a photo shoot to join a protest that appeared to be innocuous. After taking part of the protest that consisted of a racially diverse group of individuals with signs reading, “Join the Conversation,” Jenner walked up to a line of stoic police officers who formed a wall in front of the protesters. She handed one of them a freshly-opened can of Pepsi. The officer carefully took a sip of the drink and then smiled. The crowd of protesters began to cheer and celebrate. The advertisement concluded with the Pepsi logo and the words “Live for Now” displayed beneath it.

The commercial proved controversial. Some saw in this video the possibility of unity in an America caught in the throes of anti-police protests. Those who lauded the commercial believed it was Pepsi’s well-intentioned attempt to promoting diversity and unity among viewers. The ad incorporated a diverse group of actors composed of various races, genders, and possibly religions representing the protesters. An anonymous actor involved with the commercial stated that Pepsi tried to “depict a message of unity.” He also said that “The commercial had hip-hop dancers and we were all together as humans. I think they tried to show the meaning that people from every country can be together.”

But many viewers did not appreciate the advertisement. Those who were offended by the commercial believed that the video was tone-deaf and that it co-opted serious protests that were occurring across the U.S. in order to sell a soft drink. Many people expressed their frustration towards Jenner online. The video’s images brought to mind the Black Lives Matter protests that were featured in most news sources at the time. For instance, the shot of Jenner giving a Pepsi can to the officer resembled the powerful photo of Ieshia Evans, a black woman protesting the death of Alton Sterling, drifting unflinchingly and effortlessly toward approaching heavily-armed police officers. Others argued that the commercial oversimplified and trivialized the progress and struggle of the civil rights movement in America. Those who disagreed with the commercial saw Pepsi as asserting the idea that the simple gesture of giving a police officer a sugary beverage would put an end to police brutality and racial animosity. Berenice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted a photo of her father with the following caption: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

Pepsi eventually capitulated to the rising public pressure. After removing the ad from online sources, they released the following statement: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Pepsi do anything ethically problematic in producing the ad in question? Why? What values are in conflict in this case?
  2. How much do the intentions of advertising companies matter in judging the appropriateness of their advertisements?
  3. Was Pepsi’s response to the controversy over the advertisement adequate?
  4. Should an advertiser’s creative freedom be limited by social issues of the day? If so, how should advertisers guide themselves in creating edgy but ethical advertisements?
  5. Would there be an ethical way to use protest iconography in a Pepsi ad? Explain how you might do so, if you think it is possible. How does this use differ from the advertisement that Pepsi released?

Further Information:

Hirsh, Sophie. “An Actor From THAT Pepsi Commercial Says Most Actors Weren’t Aware It Would Be Problematic.” Teen Vogue. 30 May 2017. Available at: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/pepsi-commercial-backlash

Pinsker, Joe. “How on Earth Does an Ad Like Pepsi’s Get Approved?” The Atlantic, 8 Apr. 2017. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/04/pepsi-kendall-jenner-ad-how/522423/

Schultz, E.J., and Ann-Christine Diaz. “Pepsi Is Pulling Its Widely Mocked Kendall Jenner Ad.” Ad Age, 5 Apr. 2017. Available at: http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/pepsi-pulling-widely-mocked-kendall-jenner-ad/308575/

Victor, Daniel. “Pepsi Pulls Ad Accused of Trivializing Black Lives Matter.” The New York Times, 5 Apr. 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html

Wong, Julia Carrie. “Pepsi Pulls Kendall Jenner Ad Ridiculed for Co-opting Protest Movements.” The Guardian,  06 Apr. 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/apr/05/pepsi-kendall-jenner-pepsi-apology-ad-protest

Authors:

Urub Khawaja & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
July 22, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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