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The Humane Society Makes It Real

Since the news broke that Michael Vick would rejoin the NFL and work with The Humane Society on its anti-dogfighting campaign, speculation about his true state of mind has gone into overtime. Is he sincerely remorseful? Does he regret only that he was caught and suspended, or has he actually changed? It’s impossible to tell if Vick’s rehabilitation is real, of course, but in my book his brand image has nowhere to go but up. He’s been granted an extraordinary second chance, and he seems to know it. His performance on “60 Minutes” may have been a bit scripted, but it was adequate, partly because James Brown‘s questioning was so tough. It’s in everyone’s interest that his commitment to anti-cruelty education be genuine, so my guess is that the dogfighting messaging will be equally hard-hitting.

Which brings me to the impact on the Humane Society brand. Since it was initially floated that PETA might join with Vick, I’ve called it a crazy – but crazily brilliant – move that could soften PETA’s fringe-y image and help take its message mainstream.  PETA ultimately chose not to embrace Vick, but to remain harshly critical of him, questioning his remorse and demanding a psychiatric examination to prove sincerity, emotional stability, or something.

For The Humane Society, the move makes sense, but for the opposite reason.  First, its brand is strong enough to take the heat if the Vick partnership backfires. Apparently it’s already lost more than a thousand members since the announcement. But, as one of the most trusted not-for-profit names and a community presence for over 50 years, it can afford to take a calculated risk.

What’s more relevant here is its image. To put it bluntly, it’s a white-bread group.  As the Society’s president, Wayne Pacell blogs, if it’s serious about eradicating the dogfighting culture in major cities, it needs to go urban.  And with Michael Vick, a kid from the Bad Newz housing projects who’s lived and lost the dream on a spectacular scale, it has a credible figure to run the ball.  For me, the choice of a spokesperson with a tough history is refreshing and authentic. In our culture of faux reality stars and rent-a-celebrity cause endorsements, this campaign has real, um, teeth.

PETA hasn’t gone away, of course. It’s still speaking out against Vick, the Eagles, and the team’s fans, billboarding and threatening protests at games.  PETA’s track record gives new meaning to the phrase “blood sport,” so it’s not to be underestimated.   But if it does beat up on Vick and his new partners, it just might help tip the balance in his favor. Out-of-bounds insults could evoke sympathy, while making The Humane Society more relevant than ever.

America hasn’t yet made up its mind about Michael Vick, but we do love the underdog.  I’m betting it’s a win all around.

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