PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sent a woman body-painted as a mermaid to hang from a hook outside a seafood convention as a protest against fishing. But that was only the second oddest thing the group did this week. In a bizarre move even for PETA, Press Kitchen PR (which was working for an unnamed ad agency that represents PETA) pitched Mashable multiple times on a strange publicity stunt. The unnamed ad agency planned to anonymously release a disturbing video on YouTube of a house cat being "trained" to jump from one stool to another and slapped by its owner when it failed to comply. The cat in the video does not actually exist, but is a very realistic looking CGI.
According to Mashable, here's Press Kitchen's pitch: "What we'd like to do is have Mashable debut this video of a cat, created with computer-generated imagery (CGI), being abused, which will have been planted on YouTube anonymously by the ad agency who created it for PETA. Your posting of the provocative piece would simply be to acknowledge that it's in circulation--not to make any claims about its authenticity."
Once the video had inspired the appropriate amount of outrage and gone viral "ideally into the millions" Press Kitchen wrote, "we would then have you reveal to the world that the cat was NOT harmed, but was actually created with CGI." The purpose of the video was to call attention to the genuine plight of lions and tigers in circuses and movies, who are treated this exact same way in real life. "It would clearly and ironically illustrate that tigers who are whipped, screamed at, and abused are really no different from the cats who share our homes and lives," PETA explains on its website.
PETA has a valid point about big cats who are trained to perform. That said, there's so much wrong with this, it's hard to know where to start. Consider that casual phrase "have you reveal" and the underlying assumption that Mashable, like a well-trained circus lion, would do as it was told and publish the truth behind the video in a time and manner of PETA's choosing. Never mind the idea that a well-respected news organization would report on a video it knew to be computer-generated without sharing that knowledge--in other words, intentionally publish fake news.
What was PETA thinking? "The agency's idea was to launch the campaign by releasing the 'abuse' video first and then releasing a second video to create a serial narrative with a surprise ending," PETA explained on its website after Mashable had outed the group's intentions. After learning that Mashable "didn't like" the plan, PETA said it decided to regroup and launch a single video combining the two planned versions that would make it clear from the beginning that "Rufus" was a CGI cat and not a real one. "We were taken aback last night by Mashable's story and frankly surprised that Mashable didn't wait for our response," PETA's statement said, especially since it never did release that first video.
In its piece, Mashable writes that it contacted PETA for comment before publishing the story but did not get a response by publication time. "Spreading false information to raise awareness for anything--even the abuse of animals--is wrong and irresponsible. The campaign's big reveal relies on the audience following up on the story. As we all know, the internet and the news cycle move fast, and people who believe this clip is real may not necessarily see the behind-the-scene clip revealing the abuse video is fake." Besides, Mashable notes, PETA doesn't need to lie. Even before Rufus, its anti-circus campaign was effective enough to shut down Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey after 146 years of performances.
Not only that, as Mashable notes, "The stunt also plays into growing fears that advanced CGI could soon be used to produce fake videos that will be nearly indiscernible from reality." With CGI artists constantly creating more and more lifelike videos, those fears are well-founded. Rufus, for instance, looks and moves a lot like a real cat, except perhaps when he sits up on his haunches. Mashable is right that a viewer who wasn't paying close attention might well be fooled.
There's a lesson for PETA and for PR people everywhere: Don't expect you can control the press, especially if you want them to deceive their audience, even temporarily. And another one for the rest of us: Don't believe everything you see--even if it was supposedly "caught on video."
Here's the version of the video PETA released (see for yourself if you think Rufus is convincing).