Besides being an animal euthanasia service, pornography studio (no, really), and celebrity recruiter, PETA is, above all else, a marketing organization. So, in 2008, they launched a campaign to rename fish as 'sea kittens', following the logic that no one would want to eat something called a 'sea kitten'. To that end, their website is festooned with cute cartoons of anthropomorphized fish wearing fake whiskers and ears and such.
While there, you can buy sea kitten plushies, create and accessorize your very own Sea Kitten, and read 'Sea Kitten Stories' which are either intentional dark comedy or gems of accidental self-parody. For instance: "Tony the Trout is the smartest Sea Kitten in his school...When Tony is caught and fed to a precious young child who, having eaten one mercury-filled sea kitten too many falls to the bottom of his class, the irony is not lost on him." It's stupid and reductionist and makes you roll your eyes.
Which is entirely the point.
PETA has a history of doing publicity stunts (though in context, the Save the Sea Kittens campaign is downright pedestrian), sacrificing their credibility in order to start a conversation and get free publicity. And it works. I mean hell, it got me to talk about the issue, right?
And it's true that fish are often overlooked when it comes to conservation, that the world's fisheries are dangerously overexploited, and that there are credible fears that once-abundant commercial species could soon be extinct. Rebranding has, of course, worked in the past. You probably haven't ever seen 'Patagonian Toothfish' on the menu at a restaurant but you've almost certainly seen 'Chilean Sea Bass', a trade name that was specifically chosen to make the toothfish more appealing to the American market.
The problem with this campaign (as with most PETA campaigns) is the implied subtext: in this case, that animals have to be cute to be protected. In general, conservation societies tend to focus on the largest, cutest and most powerful animals. Which is of no surprise since we've been in awe of large, powerful animals since the dawn of civilization. From prehistoric cave paintings to Animal Planet, we love apex predators and megafauna.
All the money and attention to these animals can divert effort from the protection of less photogenic species, much like how omnipresent breast cancer marketing campaigns actually have a chilling effect on donations. Think of the money spent protecting the California Condor compared to that used to protect endangered beetles, freshwater clams, amphibians, and smaller birds. And that's just animals—plants and fungi fare much worse in the competition for our affections.
In contrast to PETA's campaign is that of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, a comedy tour cum conservation organization that focuses on the less photogenic hellspawn of evolution. In 2013 they conducted an online competition to choose their official mascot. By popular vote, the blobfish was deemed The World's Ugliest Animal, its flaccid, kilroy-esque expression of existential exhaustion capturing the issue nicely.
It may be a dubious honor but the message, I think, is more inclusive and much more admirable than PETA's. The idea that all animals deserve respect and protection just by virtue of being alive, regardless of appearance. Which I think is something worth talking about.