Part advertisement, part Internet hoax.

January 11th, 2009 4:44 pm by Kelly Garbato

While I understand what they’re getting at, this series of print ads for Lifebuoy hand wash are unfortunate, to say the least:

Lifebuoy - Hamster

Lifebuoy - Kitten

Lifebuoy - Fish

From top to bottom, we have a hamster, a kitten and (presumably dead and edible) fish, mashed and contorted into food shapes – a muffin, a croissant and a baby bottle, respectively. The copy reads, “You eat what you touch.”

The message, obviously, is to wash your dirty mitts before handling food, or else you’re eating all those germs you previously touched. It’s hard to say which image I find most offensive. The fish ad makes sense, as “seafood” (and “meat” in general) is more likely to harbor food borne pathogens such as salmonella; however, this image also assumes that fish are food. Instead of washing your hands after handling animal corpses, a safer bet is to forgo them altogether.

The hamster and kitten graphics, on the other hand, draw upon and reinforce the idea that non-human animals are inherently dirty and gross. (Actually, the same can be said of the fish, whether they’re living or dead. And there’s also the whole fish as a gendered insult meme.) The graphic department could have just as easily contorted a small child into the shape of a freshly baked loaf of bread (or, for the ultimate ick out, a baby’s diaper into a piece of pizza). As a child, I played in the dirt, collected worms, and ate mud pies. Heck, I still play in the dirt. My point is, humans are germy, too. (We’re the ones in need of hand wash, right?)

But the most unfortunate aspect of these ads lies in their uncanny (pun intended) resemblance to Bonsai Kittens:

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Bonsai Kittens is a long-enduring Internet hoax; The Museum of Hoaxes claims that the site’s been online since 2000, but I could swear I’ve received email alerts about the site as long as I’ve been online and blogging – 1998, maybe?

Bonsai describes the ancient Japanese art of growing miniature trees by rigorous pruning of their roots and branches. Because of their small size, aesthetic appeal, and minimal upkeep requirements, Bonsai trees have long been popular additions to offices and homes.

In late 2000 the website bonsaikitten.com debuted. It described how to apply the same Bonsai principles to kittens. The idea was to seal kittens inside glass containers. As they grew (fed and watered through a tube), the bones of the cats would supposedly conform to the shape of whatever container held them. At the end of the process a uniquely shaped ‘Bonsai Kitten’ would emerge—sure to be the envy of all.

“You no longer need be satisfied with a house pet having the same mundane shape as all other members of its species,” the site declared. “With Bonsai Kitten a world of variation awaits you, limited only by your own imagination.” The site also advertised that hand-grown Bonsai Kittens were available for sale to the public.

The site contained numerous, over-the-top details designed to provoke. (WARNING: the squeamish might want to skip this paragraph.) For instance, it described the soft, springiness of kitten bones, claiming that “if you take a week-old kitten and throw it to the floor, it will actually bounce!” It also provided nauseating details involving super glue and plastic tubes for dealing with waste removal: “as the kitten’s body is still developing, a natural rectal diverticulum will soon form around the tube.” Finally, it offered the disturbing reminder that one should remember to drill an airhole for the kitty. […]

BonsaiKitten.com almost immediately generated a huge amount of controversy. Furious animal lovers insisted that it be closed down. The Humane Society of the United States, among others, denounced it.

It was soon discovered that the site was hosted on web servers at MIT, and that it had been created by MIT students. The identity of the students was never revealed. The students conducted a few interviews with the press using the alias “Dr. Michael Wong Chang.” They explained that the site was a prank designed to satirize “the human belief of nature as a commodity.” They also expressed surprise at the reaction of animal organizations. “To be honest, we never expected the animal organizations to get involved at all,” Dr. Chang said. “We thought they’d understand.” […]

Even today, years after its creation, Bonsai Kitten continues to generate criticism, though it has by now been thoroughly debunked as a hoax. An email petition still circulates, urging people to help shut down the site. This petition is sponsored by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Critics argue that, even if Bonsai Kitten was simply a hoax, it was too shocking, that it crossed the line of decency and promoted cruelty to animals.

While I’ll save my thoughts on “Bonsai Kittens as social commentary” for another day, I do think the site runs the risk of being misinterpreted by the general public – to whom animal cruelty is a part of daily life, oftentimes no more than a meal away. So it’s a little surprising to see a mainstream product associate themselves with animal cruelty in such a manner, whether intentional or not. Even if you’ve never heard of Bonsai Kittens, mushing animals into food shapes strikes me as disquieting at best.

Lifebuoy, at least, omits the Bonsai Kitten jars; this ad for Control Extra Lube goes full-tilt Bonsai Kitten on a poor, defenseless rabbit:

Control Extra Lube - Rabbit

Unlike Lifebuoy, I’m not sure the lube peddlers can claim ignorance.

Incidentally, Lifebuoy is owned by Unilever – and Unilever tortures mice and piglets.

On second thought, maybe they know all about Bonsai Kittens, after all.

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2 Responses to “Part advertisement, part Internet hoax.”

  1. Ari Moore Says:

    Thanks so much for posting these in the Animal Rights Flickr group! This is a really, really great analysis – right on.

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