SeaWorld has been under fire ever since the 2013 release of Blackfish, which discusses the controversial captivity of killer whales. In particular, the film focuses on the story of killer whale Tilikum, who played a role in three human deaths. The most notorious of which is Dawn Brancheau, a senior trainer who Tilikum and Tilikum alone killed in a SeaWorld tank in 2010. Without diving too much into the details, SeaWorld executives claim that Brancheau was improperly wearing her hair in a ponytail while critics argue that Tilikum was an inherently violent animal that, when held captive, was bound to retaliate. Unfortunately for SeaWorld, the documentary was well received, with 8.1/10 stars on IMDB and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98%.
Little did director Gabriela Cowperthwaite know what she was starting. Bands such as REO Speedwagon, The Beach Boys, and Trace Adkins withdrew from SeaWorld’s summer “Bands, Brew, and BBQ” event. John Hargrove, former senior orca trainer at SeaWorld, published Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. Over the past two years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has issued more than 110 press releases about SeaWorld. In November 2014, SeaWorld announced that park attendance had dropped 5.2% from the previous year and profits had fallen 28% over that quarter. Moreover, the company’s stock was down 50% year over year as reported by the Orlando Sun Times.
In 2015, SeaWorld is still feeling the repercussions of the documentary’s accusations. According to the Orlando Sun Times, South Carolina grandmother Joyce Kuhl has filed a class action lawsuit against SeaWorld Orlando, which she visited in 2013. She claims that she would have never bought the $97 ticket had she known the condition of the animals, which are allegedly drugged and kept in shallow, chlorinated water causing sunburns. Others report starvation, incestuous breeding, and being painted with black oxide to conceal injuries. Kuhl wants her money back and is demanding that the company reimburse every guest who purchased tickets over the past three years. This occurred just a few weeks after SeaWorld in California suffered from a similar suit. If successful, SeaWorld stands to lose $2 billion. SeaWorld maintains that the lawsuits are filled with inaccuracies and are exploitations by extreme animal right activists.
A third class action lawsuit within three weeks does not seek to reimburse park guests but rather demands that the park end its ‘false statements’ on orca welfare, reports an article in The Guardian and instead ‘tell the truth’ in killer whale marketing. This is backed by the premise that SeaWorld has been lying to the public by saying that its orcas are happy and healthy.
Prosecuting law firm Covington & Burling states that, “SeaWorld is violating California consumer protection laws and engaging in unfair business practices.” The advising advocacy and research group Earth Island Institute adds, “if SeaWorld told the truth about the whale’s shortened and stressful lives in concrete tanks, and severe depression and boredom from sterile living conditions, no one would ever go there.”
In response, SeaWorld is launching a new TV ad campaign featuring a veterinarian, a member of the park’s animal rescue team, and a Senior Corporate Affairs Officer focusing on SeaWorld’s care of the animals. It also launched an “Ask SeaWorld” marketing campaign, which encourages open dialogue between SeaWorld and the public. View the brief TV spot below:
Specifically, SeaWorld is encouraging people to use the hashtag #AskSeaWorld on Twitter to ask questions on breeding, conversation, safety, training, and other topics. Some questions and answers are posted to the website AskSeaWorld.com. Despite the company’s good intentions, the campaign backfired when more critics responded than concerned citizens. Several asked why SeaWorld’s parking lots are bigger than its orca tanks, for instance. The company is not giving up, though. It also launched a website, SeaWorldCares.com, that features videos and research articles showing how the company is a leader in the care and protection of killer whales. It has tabs dedicated to SeaWorld’s work and facts on killer whales, including the truth about Blackfish.
From a marketing management perspective, here are some questions to consider:
- Is the necessary “damage control” beyond the company’s marketing abilities? Why or why not?
- From a marketing standpoint, what else can SeaWorld do in an attempt to reverse the bad publicity it has received over the past couple of years?
- SeaWorld was court ordered in 2014 to remove trainers from water tanks during shows. How do you envision the future use of killer whales in theme parks such as SeaWorld?