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Let them drink beer

Culture | PETA's latest campaign was a sign of new rhetorical tactics

Issue: "Court in the balance," April 1, 2000

Drink responsibly," said a campaign addressed to college students. "Don't drink milk." Instead, drink... beer.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal-rights group, launched a short-lived campaign urging college students to drink beer rather than milk. Never mind that most undergraduates are below the legal drinking age. Never mind that the beer-bottle shaped key chain they gave away associates drinking with driving. PETA encouraged college students to drink beer-a rather easy task-because beer does not harm animals. Milk, on the other hand, comes from the organized oppression of dairy cattle.

PETA, which pulled the campaign after getting countless dollars worth of free publicity, pushed other buttons with teenagers: Beer has fewer calories and no fat or cholesterol. The campaign parodied the famous milk-mustache ads of the American dairy industry. "Wipe off those milk mustaches," says the ads, and replace them with foam from a brew, not a "moo."

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Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was upset at PETA's promotion of beer, and ultimately PETA dropped the campaign and made a $500 donation to MADD as "a goodwill gesture."

The dairy industry also was incensed. "First of all, they're targeting college students, who cannot legally drink until age 21," complained Laura Wilford, a dietician and vice president for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "Second, they're comparing beer's nutritional value, and it's negligible. Most college students, particularly women, don't get enough calcium. Why would you consider beer a nutritionally comparable product to something like milk?"

This wasn't the first time PETA stepped on toes. Earlier, PETA argued that "Jesus was a vegetarian." Christian-sounding Internet domains and search-engine words would call up a PETA site making that case. Never mind the text about Jesus eating fish after the Resurrection. This and other inconvenient passages were dismissed by the liberal theologian's slight-of-hand: The passages we don't like must have been added later, in this case by the oppressors of animals who took over the organized church.

Christians, of course, can agree that we should not be cruel to animals. "A righteous man," says Scripture, "regardeth the life of his beast" (Proverbs 12:10, KJV). Christians can be animal lovers. But the other half of the verse is also telling: "But the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." There can be a cruelty in "tender mercies," as well. An example may be when, in the name of mercy to dairy cows, cruelty is done to college students by encouraging them in illegal and self-destructive behavior. Also, try not milking cows and see what they go through.

The PETA "Got Beer?" campaign illustrates today's techniques of persuasion, in a climate that does not recognize objective truth and so can dispense with reason and evidence. As the political campaigns intensify, be on the lookout:

First, the end overrides other ends. PETA considers the rescue of animals to be so important that it pays no attention to the well-being of young human beings.

Second, truth is what we spin it to be. PETA made wholly spurious claims against milk and for beer, but they constructed a plausibility structure that seemed to make sense, on the surface. Political ads can do the same thing: Is there the slightest evidence that George W. Bush is, for example, anti-Catholic? Not a bit. But by connecting him to other people who criticize Catholicism, he can be made to appear so.

Third, and most important, the coolness factor wins. The real appeal of PETA's campaign to college students was its hip humor in making fun of the milk ads and its audacity in challenging conventional wisdom. In our fashion-driven, celebrity-ridden culture, whatever person or cause can gain the image of coolness will be the one that ends up being persuasive. Conversely, people or causes who are branded "out of fashion" are losers.

Today, abortion, gays, and animal rights have social cachet. The media mavens labeled Dan Quayle as uncool; John McCain, on the other hand, was cool. Interestingly, the media mavens used to make fun of Al Gore as being uncool. Look for this to change, with attempts to lay the geek factor on Mr. Bush.

We are in an age that rejects logic, while still practicing rhetoric.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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