Groundswell of opposition greets company’s support for animal-rights group

Unless we’re friendz on Facebook, you probably didn’t notice the recent dustup involving Yellow Tail wine. It emerged a few weeks back when the Humane Society of the United States announced a Yellow Tail promotion designed to generate $100,000 for the Washington-based animal-rights group.

I should tell you now that I don’t care for Yellow Tail wine, but sometimes serve it at parties after my guests get into the 3rd or 4th bottle. At that point, who can tell the difference? I should also tell you I don’t care for the Humane Society of the United States much, either.

How can I dislike folks who rescue homeless cats and dogs? I don’t. And they don’t. Like many of you, I long believed the HSUS and my local humane society were one in the same. Turns out, we were victims of brand confusion.

HSUS works primarily on animal-rights legislation, not animal rescue projects. The group also holds some radical positions when it comes to the use of animals, and often finds itself at loggerheads with farmers and ranchers. Where I get crossways with HSUS is over its opposition to hunting and fishing, hobbies of mine for more than 40 years.

HSUS isn’t always on my s#&* list. The group has supported legislation to ban animal fighting activities and to regulate the “puppy mill” industry, both commendable positions.

Organized opposition to the YT-HSUS partnership has shown up in agricultural publications and pro-farm websites. It’s also generating buzz via social media and mainstream media. Hunters have jumped in, posting  dissatisfaction to forums and message boards, promising to vote with their wallets and to boycott Yellow Tail.

Finally, there’s this South Dakota rancher, along with his black angus herd, helping the protest along with a YouTube video. 

I worry that some who support HSUS don’t know the whole story. The ‘humane society” brand is a powerful one that most of us associate with local pet adoption. So it’s easy to be taken in by the puppy pictures and emotional appeals used by HSUS. It happens.

But if you’re in the business of counseling clients about marketing partnerships, doing your homework isn’t an option. What happened here? Did the folks at Yellow Tail fall for the puppy images on the website? Didn’t they consider the millions of Americans who oppose the more radical positions of HSUS?

How could the marketers overlook the signs? Or does someone at Casella Wines feel so strongly about HSUS that he/she would put the flagship brand at risk? Doubt it.

We won’t know for a couple of months if the campaign was a boneheaded move. It’s possible the “Boycott Yellow Tail” movement will never achieve the critical mass. It’s possible that bloggers and reporters will lose interest in the story. Most boycotts fail.

Anyway, it’s been fun adding to the groundswell with this post, but it’s also a teachable moment for PR students and the profession. The lesson is simple: Marketers should do their research. The opposition to HSUS would have become immediately evident.

And for the well-intentioned animal lovers out there: If you want to support the adoption of homeless pets, send a check to your local shelter. They need your help, and that’s what they do.

24 Responses to Groundswell of opposition greets company’s support for animal-rights group

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: Writing about the growing backlash to Yellow Tail-Humane Society promo. Lesson: Research your partners. #HSUS…

  2. Kymberly says:


    I too am fascinated with PR and the mechanics of it all.

    It’s almost unfathomable that someone at YTW didn’t stop and think before this donation went through. How many heads must have looked at – and signed off – on this?

  3. Jae says:

    Will this have a chilling effect on HSUS ability to attract corporate sponsors and corporate celebrities in the future?

    Will brand managers take note and steer their clients away from HSUS?
    HSUS needs the legitimization of their support more than it needs the money.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      This campaign could very well impact HSUS operations long-term, Jae. But only if posts like this one make the first page or two of a Google search. Most people don’t look any deeper. I just ran the search “yellow tail” + HSUS, and about half the results are items critical of the program. This post, for the moment, is atop Page One of Google Blog Search for the same terms. That’s bad news for the boycott, because this is hardly an A-list blog.

      There’s another possibility. What if HSUS were to launch a fundraising campaign aimed at the core constituents? You know, the “true believers.” Such a campaign could demonize the evil forces of Big Agriculture and the Gun-Nut/NRA/Bloodsport groups. Help HSUS defeat the evil pagan carnivores!

      True believers will pull out their checkbooks. But such a campaign risks exposing HSUS’s radical side to members who hunt deer and eat steak. And I suspect they have a few of those. I’ve never met a hunter who didn’t love dogs!

  4. Glenn says:

    I’m very happy Yellowtail is supporting animal protection. I even got a bottle of Yellowtail Reisling for a friend’s party this weekend.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks for your 2 cents, Glenn. For what it’s worth, I’m also opposed to animal cruelty. I simply don’t support the way HSUS fights the battle.

      This case has struck a chord with a fairly broad constituency. But it’s a little early to gauge impact. I do know this: I’m a niche blogger in the PR field, and I’m headed for a record number of visits today thanks to this post. There’s a groundswell out there, and it appears I’ve stumbled into it.

      BTW, I see from your blog that you have a pretty intense interest in the topic of animal rights. We may disagree, but admire folks to pursue their passion. Wish more of my students had such focus.

      Update: Broke the record for daily visits shortly after 8 p.m.

  5. Ohh, I hadn’t heard about this dust up. It aligns perfectly with something else I was working on today: Businesses need to think through all the possible implications of partnerships. Who or what you align your business/brand with speaks volumes — whether that’s what you intend or not. Thanks for sharing, Bill!!


  6. Jennifer Pettigrew says:

    Bill, I couldn’t agree more that public relations practitioners need to diligently research the implications of all business decisions. And, then they need to talk with the marketing folks.

    I think we need stronger journalism to help us inform the general public. With the advent of 24-hour news shows on countless cable channels, the diligence in accurate non-opinion based reporting seems to be suffering. We need a focus on journalists willing to take the time to find and research stories about legislative intent, special interest groups, and other folks who generally do a good job of hiding their funding sources. We don’t need another talking head putting his or her spin on a situation regardless of the facts.

    Then beyond that, we need more passionate lawyers to help bring clarity and objectivity to the legislature.

  7. […] Groundswell of oppostion greets company's support for animal … […]

  8. Michael Roush says:

    I am sure that there are a lot of other legitimate wine purveyors in this country that will NOT jump on the HSUS bandwagon! The word is getting out that they (HSUS) are not as much for “animal protection” as they are for damaging or destroying animal agriculture in the United States of America. Needless to say, American farmers produce the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply of any country in the world. I don’t believe that any American wants imported foods from countries that have a known problem with sanitation or other controls in place to ensure safe foods.

  9. Nilda Huval says:

    Ending puppy mills and other types of animal cruelty is very important to me.

  10. Kathy Lucas says:

    Ending animal cruelty should be very important to all of us. Ending animal ownership should be very abhorrent to all of us and that is what HSUS and Peta are all about.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thank you, Kathy. You’ve pretty much made my point. Now, the folks at Yellow Tail should have a clearer picture of the business partner they’ve chosen.

  12. Barb Durtche says:

    Many, many organizations, not just in the public relations field, believe HSUS to be animal experts. Google “animal care” or “animal legislation” at any time prior to the yellowtail flap, and the first 8 pages are HSUS supported. The press release has taken over Google.
    They are called in as “experts” by some local humane societies. They are called in as “experts” by government entities (from small town to the state level) often because these same entities are pressed for the time to look any further.
    To “do the homework” requires open eyes to start with, and that’s not an easy task.

  13. Hillary says:

    Hi Bill – I’ve worked at several animal shelters and now I work at the HSUS. As you noted, our organization has no affiliation with local humane societies. These groups do important work and absolutely need the support of their communities.

    A couple of things jump out at me in this debate. The first is that the donation from Yellowtail Wine is supporting our Animal Rescue Team, which responds at the request of local shelters and law enforcement agencies to provide assistance with large-scale animal cruelty cases. These are the kinds of cases that can easily overwhelm a community’s resources because of the number of animals involved and the logistics that go into transporting and sheltering them, providing veterinary care, etc. For people who prioritize direct, hands-on care of animals, this response team falls squarely in that category.

    The backlash against Yellowtail is being driven largely by the agricultural community, and yet our organization has worked successfully with a number of farming groups and individuals. One of the spokespeople for Prop 2 in CA (the ballot measure to provide laying hens, pregnant sows and veal calves with enough room to stand up, turn around, and extend their limbs) was Bill Neiman, a CA cattle rancher. In Ohio where the HSUS is pursuing a similar measure, we have support from the United Farm Workers. Last summer, our CEO Wayne Pacelle was interviewed by the host of AgriTalk Radio (transcript at Here’s a short excerpt:


    Wayne goes on to say, “It is my core belief that Americans are going to continue to eat meat, milk and egg products. That is the way it is. These are long-standing cultural practices.”

    For people who have made up their minds about the HSUS, perhaps nothing I can say will change that, but the claim that our organization is out to eliminate animal agriculture is simply not accurate.

    (quick response to Kathy Lucas – the dogs who accompany many HSUS employees to the office, including the one snoozing at my feet, would be surprised to hear that we want to end pet ownership!)

  14. Hillary says:

    Oops, here’s the interview excerpt that didn’t show up in my earlier comment:

    Adams: So your intent is not to shut down the livestock industry? Is that what you are saying?

    Pacelle: Yes, that is correct.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful and intelligent reply, Hillary. I’m only sorry that it comes so long after the conversation on this site has ended. Blog readers have short attention spans!

      But your late arrival may be for the best. I’ve learned from my years of online conversation that like-minded people are drawn to these posts more for affirmation than discussion. That makes it hard for opposing views to be heard and respected.

      While I’m not a supporter of HSUS, my focus wasn’t to demean your programs, but to point out the need for marketers to carefully consider the upside and the downside of partnerships like this one.

      You are correct in saying that the primary opposition to HSUS is the agricultural community, and I appreciate that you make no attempt to discredit their position or their right to express it. Sad that such courtesy is rare today, isn’t it? So thanks for extending it.

      You’ve stated the organization’s position eloquently and respectfully. I intend to point my students to your comment as an example of how to communicate effectively in a hostile environment.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Iams made this same mistake about five years ago…long before HSUS’ radical stance on hunting and animal agriculture became common knowledge. Yellow Tail failed to do their homework on this one, but worse yet they failed to take decisive action once the blunder was called to their attention. They said they were sorry but didn’t make it right by the people who are affected — America’s farmers and ranchers.

  16. Hillary — Prop 2 and similar efforts in Ohio will drive farmers out of business. You know it, Wayne knows it, and we’re going to make sure the American people know it. The egg industry is leaving California as a result of Prop 2. Fortunately, neighboring states are welcoming them with open arms (and tax incentives). HSUS is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, using token animal rescue efforts to fund campaigns to drive farmers and ranchers out of business.

  17. Hillary says:

    Thanks for your response, Bill. I appreciate it.

    Daren – I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m not sure if you’re aware that the HSUS has worked with companies like Trader Joe’s, Wendy’s, IHOP, and a large number of university dining services to transition to cage-free eggs. Wal-Mart also recently confirmed that all of its private-label eggs come from cage-free sources. This market is expanding rapidly and will benefit farmers who adapt to it.

  18. Bill Sledzik says:

    Let me say again, that while I don’t generally support HSUS, certain of the policies promoted by this group are ones we should all embrace.

    Cage-free eggs is one of those. I would also salute your fight to clean up the inhumane conditions on some of the factory hog farms, and have no problem with your efforts to help local animal shelters — even though it does not appear to be a core mission of HSUS.

    But I can’t separate HSUS from its overall tone and track record, which seems focused on a vegetarian agenda. Nothing against vegetarians or vegans, so long as they don’t try to legislate it.

    And where I grew up, opposition to hunting and fishing — them’s fightin’ words. But in fairness, HSUS does say it is not opposed hunting for subsistence and for wildlife management purposes. That is a far more reasonable position than the more radical groups like PETA.

    For the record, I eat what I kill. But I could hardly call it subsistence. I enjoy the sports of hunting and fishing.

  19. KC says:

    Thanks for speaking up & bringing attention to the HSUS which most folks believe to be kind & caring animal lovers with shelters & rescue groups. I have dealt with a few HSUS animal shelters & they were often much to quick to kill (euthanize) cats & dogs that are in their “care” & I also get sort of ticked off that the HSUS & PETA support terrorists who work under the guise of animal rights. They are a multi-billion dollar corporation that uses very little of their income for the care & protection of animals, yet they will give plenty to the legal funds of terrorists who destroy businesses & livelihoods, as well as outright murder of their fellow animal, the human being. I am a proud supporter of the ASPCA & many local animal shelters who need more support than those absurd kooks at PETA & the HSUS. I am still unsure of what provoked the dust up between the HSUS & Yellow Tail wine (I don’t drink alcohol, so my partaking in a boycott would be silly & pointless) as I have just found this info out through your blog & through the online “bird cage liner” magazine “People.” I am tired of people being misled by PETA & the HSUS when it comes to their claims of helping animals, when PETA & the HSUS shelters are the most prolific killers & only focus on the financial rewards of their support instead of doing all they can to secure a happy & safe life for the pets that sadly wind up in their care. With the horrible financial depression which is causing more & more folks to lose their jobs & homes to foreclosure, their are literally thousands of pets being relinquished to shelters every week, & those that find themselves at either a PETA or HSUS shelter are only given, at the most, 2 weeks to live & at worst, are killed by inexperienced yahoos in the vans while they are driving away from where they picked up the animals. Please get the word out that if you love & want to help animals, support local shelters & rescues or the ASPCA who desperately need your help. Also, with so many pets having to be given up, there is a high demand not only for adoptive homes, but also for foster homes, so if you have the time & room to accommodate a cat or dog, please do so & help not only to save a life, but help keep it a happy life.

  20. Bill Sledzik says:


    Here is where the brand confusion between your local “Humane Society” shelter and HSUS takes an ugly turn. HSUS does not maintain those local shelters you speak of, and isn’t affiliated with them. True, HSUS does support many animal-rights causes, some of which you and I consider a tad radical. But HSUS is not responsible for what goes on at the local dog pound.

    To accuse HSUS of terrorism is so far over the edge it frightens me, KC — so much so that I nearly deleted your comment. Yes, some animal-rights groups have resorted to destruction of property and some crazy-ass stunts do come from the kooky vegans at PETA. But the word “terrorism” doesn’t fit either organization. Rather, it represents the sort of divisive and hateful rhetoric that makes it hard for reasonable folk to see both sides of an issue.

    As for your local shelters killing homeless pets, most do. It’s the ugly side of running an orphanage for critters. But to blame shelters for euthanizing unwanted pets is akin to blaming waste management companies for landfilling your non-recyclable trash. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the only one available.

    Don’t blame the shelters for euthanizing homeless animals. They simply deal with the problems society creates. And don’t blame HSUS, as it doesn’t run the local animal shelter. While I disagree with HSUS on quite a few issues, some of its programs to combat animal cruelty and neglect are laudable, and I said so in the post.

    You’re angry about this issue, KC. Lots of pet owners are. But your rant in this comment carries a boatload of misinformation. That’s one problem with the Internet these days: We can gravitate to the sources that support our preconceived notions and ignore the rest. As a result, we tend to get our facts twisted and our stories wrong.

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