Two years after the release of the documentary Blackfish, SeaWorld has launched an ad campaign to try to rebuild its reputation, which the film nearly destroyed.
The campaign Ask SeaWorld, released March 23, consists of TV and print ads, as well as a website with videos featuring interviews with trainers and veterinarians. The park is also encouraging anyone with questions to tweet them to @SeaWorld, and the answers will be posted on the campaign’s website, ask.seaworldcares.com.
The movie Blackfish tells the story of the 6-ton whale named Tilikum that attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau on February 24, 2010, at SeaWorld Orlando. Brancheau was interacting with Tilikum after a show had just ended when witnesses say the whale grabbed her by her ponytail, dragged her into the water and wouldn’t let go. The movie presents many negative claims about the way the whales at SeaWorld parks were captured, Tilikum specifically, and how his living conditions may have triggered the incident. The film also emphasizes the fact that this was not the first time Tilikum had been involved in the death of one of his trainers.
I can’t say that I think SeaWorld made a smart decision by launching this campaign. Yes, the park needs to do something to rebuild its tainted image, but not this way. SeaWorld can’t fight the kind of extremely harsh criticism that was presented in the documentary with merely its side of the story. The only meaningful way to fight back would be to make major changes in the way the park handles orcas, such as their confined living spaces and the rigorous training processes they go through to prepare for the shows. Overall, SeaWorld needs to be more transparent about the daily lives of these wild animals in captivity.
Since the launch of the #AskSeaWorld campaign, there has been major backlash. One user, Lorena, tweeted, “@SeaWorld so do you starve them before or after you make them perform.” Another by Kelli Lovett said, “@SeaWorld why do you provide more area for us to park our cars than you give these animals to live?”
One user even tweeted @SeaWorld an image of the company’s falling stock and asked if they thought their new PR campaign was working. Most of the tweets are outrageous; it is obvious that people are still very angry over the claims presented in the documentary. This campaign is not going to be the easy fix SeaWorld was hoping for. Instead, people are using the Twitter campaign to once again criticize the park.
After Blackfish’s release in 2013, SeaWorld saw a major decline in attendance and revenue. In the first quarter of 2014, the park said attendance had decreased by 13 percent. Revenue came in at $212.3 million, a decrease of $26.3 million compared to the first quarter of 2013.
Animal-rights organization PETA has tried to dissuade SeaWorld from using orcas in their shows for a long time. Their website called SeaWorldofHurt.com allows users to send emails to SeaWorld directly asking for the release of the captive animals into protected sanctuaries. More than 1.1 million people have contacted the park in regards to their practices, according to USA Today. PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange called SeaWorld’s new ad campaign “a desperate attempt” to win back visitors, according to NPR. Spending all of this money on a new ad campaign is a waste of millions of dollars that could be used to further improve the habitats of these captive animals.
Shortly after the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld did announce plans to build new habitats for their orcas. The Blue World Project promises a 10 million gallon tank that will be 50 feet deep and 350 feet long. It will also have a fast water current for the whales to swim against. SeaWorld plans to have the project finished in its San Diego park by 2018, and construction will start in its other parks in Orlando and San Antonio. The news of this project was released in August 2014, but despite that and the new ad campaign, SeaWorld is still facing a massive amount of negative feedback. And with the recent release of former trainer John Hargrove’s book Beneath the Surface: SeaWorld Insider Goes Beyond Blackfish, I don’t see the end of it coming soon.
SeaWorld has a long way to go and a lot of work to do before it can get back to where it was before Blackfish. I am unsure if that is even possible at this point. Most people are very angry and have written off SeaWorld completely. I am not one of those people because I do believe SeaWorld does a lot of good as well, especially when it comes to rescuing animals. But unfortunately, the company has also made some big mistakes, including the new campaign. However, I believe SeaWorld deserves another chance. SeaWorld needs to remain focused on its Blue World Project and other initiatives to improve the lives of the animals. That will bring positive feedback and, hopefully, increased attendance and revenue.
Caitlin Malone can be reached at caitlin..firstname.lastname@example.org.