14 Desember 2010

» Home » Boston » Opinion » Sticker shock

Sticker shock

THERE ARE times, in the life of an activist, when principle collides with reality. Kat Ranalletti started the Lucky Dog Thrift Shop in Nashua to raise money for an animal-welfare foundation. But her business depends on donated clothes, and some of the items she sells are made of fur, leather, wool, reptile skin, and down.

Ranalletti wrestled with the dissonance until she came up with an idea: put tags on the offending items, telling shoppers that they ought to be offended. She struggled to make the tags herself, then decided to ask PETA for help.
Her cold call to the animal rights group has led to a series of tags that PETA hopes to spread to secondhand stores across the country. And the messages — crafted jointly by Ranalletti and PETA leaders — are remarkably gentle, by PETA standards. The animal rights group is best known for shock and awe: red paint tossed on coats, models wearing lettuce, leaflets handed to children, hard-to-stomach photos of animals in pain. But each tag in Ranalletti’s shop begins with ironic gratitude. “If you choose to buy fur,’’ one begins, “thank you for buying it secondhand.’’
And instead of grotesque pictures, the tags feature photos of mom-and-baby animals in various stages of cuteness, along with descriptions of their potential fates. A goose swims with her goslings (“plucking geese causes them pain and distress’’). A sheep nuzzles a lamb (“lambs have large strips of skin and flesh carved from their backsides’’). Two silkworms look as adorable as caterpillars can (“silkworms are steamed or gassed alive in their cocoons’’).
Whether the average shopper cares about a silkworm holocaust, the effect is cumulative. The tags, up since September, have cost Ranalletti some sales — one woman was going to buy an expensive fur-lined belt but walked away after reading about baby foxes. Ranalletti said she was pleased. But she still has a business to run, and she doesn’t want to come across as scolding. “It’s not like they know that they’re contributing to any cruelty,’’ she said of her customers. “They’re just regular people coming in the store . . . I just want them to know.’’
How best to calibrate persuasion and shame is a problem for many activists; guilt is powerful, but it takes more than reproach to launch a movement. The eco-conscious frenzy that has given us sustainable baby toys and bamboo coffins had something to do with Al Gore’s propaganda. But green also developed a social cachet — and turned into something you could buy.
It’s harder to convince people not to buy things, which is one reason PETA tends to argue with extremes. Another is the group’s limited ad budget. “Often, it’s the sillier or more provocative or more confrontational things that get people talking,’’ said Dan Mathews, PETA’s vice president and the mastermind of many of its high-profile campaigns.
PETA hasn’t given up on splashiness; the group just put out a racy video starring Pamela Anderson as a TSA agent who strips passengers of fur and leather clothes. (Intended as an ad on airport wireless networks, it was rejected by the company that runs WiFi at Logan.) Targeted shock can still work. In September, a research lab in North Carolina shut down — and placed some 200 animals for adoption — after a PETA video revealed inhumane treatment, and the USDA launched an investigation.
But Mathews concedes that ugly public campaigns can backfire, that methods can drown out the message. “If it’s too appalling or too shocking or too disturbing,’’ he said, “sometimes people just look the other way.’’
So like any group that has achieved a critical mass of public awareness, PETA has to figure out its most effective pitch. Maybe it’s not possible to argue gently against fur when mink coats are back on fashion runways, and a certain former vice presidential candidate is shooting caribou on TV. (And who knows what Mitt Romney will do to look equally tough in 2012 — harpoon a dolphin from his Jet Ski?)
Or maybe it is — and those thrift store tags can be something of a test. Will it work to equate silkworms with baby foxes? Will bargain shoppers become anti-down ambassadors? When is shouting necessary, and when does a whisper work perfectly well?
Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss @globe.com.
 Opinion of Boston 14 December 2010