The release of the documentary Blackfish has made for a dark 12 months at SeaWorld.
The chain of marine life–themed amusement parks has long faced protests from animal rights activists, who claim that the tourist destination mistreats the many whales, dolphins, and other creatures it keeps and trains for its famed shows and exhibitions. But in January 2013, when director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish about these alleged abuses debuted at Sundance, the niche murmurs began to get louder. And after the doc first aired on CNN in October, the protests hit the mainstream.
The fight between the corporate giant and a newly emboldened band of activists has spilled over even more so into several public arenas in the last week, from protests at the Tournament of Roses to a Forbes.com controversy.
1. Media Controversies
SeaWorld, which went public on the stock exchange three months before the film’s bow at Sundance, noted in later regulatory filings that any in-park accident that “receives media attention, is the topic of a book, film, documentary or is otherwise the subject of public discussions,” could hurt their brand and ultimately, their bottom line.
CNN’s first airing of Blackfish on Oct. 24 swept every major demographic under the age of 55 watching TV that night. It also played in theaters across the country beginning in July. And since the film was released on Netflix on Dec. 13, it has been reviewed by nearly 600,000 users, earning a perfect five-star rating and making it one of Netflix’s most popular programs.
Now, Blackfish has been shortlisted for an Oscar nomination.
That’s a lot of media attention, which has required a lot of public relations pushback.
In addition to the normal rash of press releases (including this open letter published in several major newspapers) and photo opportunities, SeaWorld has allegedly worked to game the system in a more underhanded way.
On Dec. 31, The Orlando Business Journal polled its readers, asking whether “CNN’s Blackfish documentary changed [their] perception of SeaWorld?” On Thursday, the returns were quite unusual, with 99% of respondents claiming that the film had done nothing to alter their opinion of the park. The newspaper investigated, and found that a single IP address was responsible for delivering 54% of the votes. The IP, it turned out, belonged to SeaWorld.com and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.
In response, Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for SeaWorld, defended what he said was employees’ participation in the poll:
“SeaWorld Entertainment is headquartered in Orlando and we have three parks here,” he told BuzzFeed. “We have five parks in Central Florida, which means thousands and thousands of our people live and work here. Yes, a few hundred of our employees voted in the OBJ poll and many did so from computers and other devices that use our servers. I have absolutely no idea why anyone considers this a big deal. When the poll appeared a lot of people got a Google Alert, including me, and a few hundred people voted in support of their company. It is no more mysterious than that.”
The same day that the poll results were revealed, an article on Forbes.com that detailed the financial hit the chain has taken since Blackfish’s release was taken down (though it’s saved in Google cache). Its author, James McWilliams, took to his blog, writing that “management demanded changes that I could not, in good conscience, make.”
A spokeswoman for Forbes told BuzzFeed that “the post did not live up to Forbes’ editorial standards.” McWilliams’ emailed response to the site’s request to edit the already published post got caught in a spam filter, the spokeswoman said, and so, the publication deleted the post. McWilliams’ email, which was found later, contained his resignation.
McWilliams, a published book author who began contributing to Forbes in November, confirmed his position with the publication, which he later wrote was a minor role with little financial compensation. “Whatever heroism narrative you have in mind should be tempered by these facts,” he added on his blog.
SeaWorld did not contact Forbes about removing the story, the site’s spokeswoman told BuzzFeed.
2. Parade Protests
On New Year’s Day, 19 people were arrested for protesting SeaWorld’s float in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. Police alleged that the protesters, who were there with a larger contingent from PETA, “attempted to stand and stomp in front of the float to delay its progress.”
The fight over the float drifted over to Facebook, where SeaWorld posted photos of its floral display.
One user wrote, “Beautiful float! Now release the orcas and leave them where nature intended them to be IN THE OCEAN! Thnx,” a sentiment shared with a large proportion of the commenters. On the other hand, one of the park’s defenders wrote, “Sea World has done more good for sea life animals of ANY zoo, any rescue center, any animal testing lab… The float was beautiful and so is the treatment of animals by Sea World.”
This was the second major parade in two months in which activists have protested SeaWorld’s float. In November, protesters were outraged by the company’s participation in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which the retailer defended by saying it “has never taken on, promoted or otherwise engaged in social commentary, political debate, or other forms of advocacy, no matter how worthy.”
3. Celebrities Are Jumping Ship
As you can tell from this 2010 photo of Justin Bieber, visits from celebrities — and the implicit endorsements those visits carry — are quite important to SeaWorld. Each time the company nets a well-known name, the celebrity poses for photos with animals, and then SeaWorld sends those photos to the press and wire services.
Over the last year, entertainers have shown little affection for SeaWorld. Photo wire records show fewer celebrity visits, and the chain has been hit by tweets from a number of high-profile personalities.
‘Black Fish’ and ‘The Cove’ should be watched before deciding to take your kids to any sea life parks.
Only movie I want to go see this week: Blackfish. Watch out, Sea World. We are on to you. http://t.co/pzzfRXZ8CP
Just saw CNNs blackfish again…Fu$k Sea World they should invest in a mechanical fishride and people suck for keepin them in business
While celebrities have long been active in the fight for animal rights, avoiding a theme park is a far smaller request than, say, becoming a vegetarian. And not only has celebrity reluctance hurt in theory, it’s also hit SeaWorld where it really hurts: the wallet.
In December, several major acts pulled out of concerts that were scheduled to be held at the parks, including Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, and The Barenaked Ladies. As popular touring groups, their absence — and rebuke — isn’t helping to bring visitors through the gates.
Update: This post now includes SeaWorld’s response to the “Orlando Business Journal” polling controversy.