Wednesday, March 28, 2007

PETA's ventriloquism act

More than 230 stories were written today about Burger King’s switch to pork and eggs from animals raised outside of cages, according to one of the news-gathering systems we use. I’ll bet 90 percent of the articles suggested Burger King was the source, which is kind of perplexing. The chain didn’t issue a statement, or at least not one that I could find during the considerable time that I spent looking. Nor did I see a statement quoted in any of the stories. And the last article posted, by Reuters, specifically noted that the franchisor wouldn’t address the matter. So where did everyone get the news? From PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, two animal-rights extremist groups that were pressing BK to promote more humane farming practices.

It’s not surprising that such publicity-savvy crusaders would crow about their victory. What’s dismaying is how they assumed the role of spokes-groups for BK, airing the news as if they were the chain’s public relations department. Indeed, an announcement posted on a service called the Restaurant News Resource is tagged as coming from Burger King. The electronic document carries the chain’s familiar logo, as if the home office had released it. Yet the content is all about PETA, a.k.a. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and it was exactly the statement that the group had directly sent to us this morning. Yet a casual reader would initially think the release had come from BK.

It’s such a blatant encroachment on BK’s turf that I can’t help but wonder if the statement was the result of more than mere audacity on PETA’s part. Was making the announcement part of a deal struck with BK? Did the chain agree to let PETA and the Humane Society do the talking? I have no concrete evidence, but that would explain why PETA and the Society recounted the exact same points of BK’s “decision” (though the language did vary slightly). And why BK was silent on a development that many consumers might see as a positive move by the chain.

If it’s so, and the animal groups indeed become the party framing announcements like today’s head-turner, the industry would be ceding an important safeguard. Instead of hearing the applause it deserves, the trade would have to listen to lot of self-serving chest-thumping from a bunch of roughnecks.


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