Written by Jacy Reese, Sentience Institute Co-Founder & Research Director
Sentience Institute was founded around a year and a half ago, and we’re happy to say we’ve seen a very positive response from the animal advocacy community. We also saw this in a recent survey of effective animal advocacy leaders asking what they thought of our existing research and what research we should do in the future. 1
While this positivity is great, we worry that the lack of criticism and resistance suggests we’re not framing our conclusions strongly enough. There are some big changes we’d like to see in the movement, and if we were drawing enough attention to these big changes, we think we’d either see groups making those changes, or encounter more resistance and criticism.
So we’re using this post to be more provocative than we have been. To be clear, we think the farmed animal movement is already doing fantastic, highly-effective work overall. The critical nature of this post shouldn’t be taken to mean otherwise. We do, however, see substantial room for the movement to be even more effective.
Specifically, we want to highlight three big changes the movement needs to make that seem important (taking them seriously could enable advocates to do far more good), nonobvious (they have resulted from extensive research rather than just common sense and readily-available evidence 2), long-term (mattering not just in the next few years but over the next decades and beyond), and under-discussed in the farmed animal movement:
- Shift from an individual focus to an institutional focus. We need to shift over 50% of the resources and messaging we currently use to promote individual change (i.e. changing individual diets one-by-one, such as converting them to veganism or reducetarianism) to change institutions instead (i.e. changing governments, businesses, nonprofits, and social norms). We believe the heavy focus on individual consumption that we currently see in the movement fails to fully capitalize on public sentiment about animal issues and provokes defensiveness and opposition from the public, whereas a stronger focus on institutions would probably lead to faster, widely-supported, superlinear progress.
- Stop using gimmicks such as sexualized images of women and cute, cartoonish animal costumes. While these garner substantial attention, we expect them to do more harm than good for the movement by trivializing animal issues, reinforcing the notion of animal advocacy as unserious and a lesser social issue, and burning bridges with or otherwise antagonizing other social movements.
- Maintain a moral focus when promoting animal-free food technology. This is important in the medium term to ensure that the public sees these foods as necessary for the betterment of society instead of just increased profits for big business, and in the long term to help expand humanity’s circle, reducing the likelihood that other beings will experience vast suffering in the future.
Each of these is also discussed on our Foundational Questions Summaries page, which aggregates the existing evidence on a variety of important questions in effective animal advocacy.
1. SHIFT FROM AN INDIVIDUAL FOCUS TO AN INSTITUTIONAL FOCUS.
There are two categories of changes that we’d like to see happen here: First, most advocacy messaging (e.g. the words in a leaflet, a YouTube video, or a social media post) that currently advocates for individual diet change (e.g. “Go vegan,” “Leave animals off your plate”) should instead advocate for institutional change (e.g. “End animal farming,” “Make slaughterhouses obsolete,” “Help us reduce US meat consumption by 50% by 2050”). This doesn’t mean individual diet change should never be advised. On the final page of a leaflet, for example, it may be best to offer several concrete calls to action, one of which can be individual diet change. Others can be, “Join our protest calling for Walmart to improve their treatment of chickens,” “Sign this petition asking McDonald’s to replace their chicken nuggets with plant-based alternatives,” “Vote for this ballot initiative to ban factory farming,” or “Visit this URL to find an animal rights organization in your city that hosts local meet-ups.”
Second, we’d like to see substantially less focus on advocacy tactics that work by convincing individuals one-by-one to change their consumption. The main examples here are online ads and diet-focused leaflets, though a notable exception is that leafleting is often used successfully to empower grassroots communities, such as by getting vegans involved in activism for the first time. Of course, those leaflets could still emphasize more institution-focused messages like calls to support a current political or corporate campaign.
We’d like to see most of the resources currently going into these tactics instead go to tactics that focus on changing institutions: governments, companies, nonprofits, and society as a whole. For example, these resources could be spent on campaigning for companies to produce more plant-based options, on campaigning for laws to improve and enforce farmed animal welfare standards or to ban factory farming, or on media such as documentaries, books, articles, and nonfiction that seeks to spark conversation in society about the issues of animal farming. Media outreach likely has some effect on individuals’ diets, but we’re prioritizing them based on their ability to facilitate discussions and create “common knowledge” that is useful for future advocacy. For example, undercover investigations have become common knowledge in the sense that a vegan can explain their diet choice by saying, “I saw a lot of those investigation videos of meat production,” and in the US, most people will understand what they’re referencing.
1. There is much more public support for institutional change than willingness to change individual habits. Around 2% of US adults rigorously follow a vegetarian diet and less than 10% self-identify as vegetarian. But around 47% support a ban on slaughterhouses and around 33% support a ban on animal farming. Similarly, only a small number of adults in the United States seem to opt for organic (~1.5% fresh red meat), grass-fed (~0.9% fresh red meat), or other specialty animal products (e.g. ~6% cage-free eggs prior to the wave of corporate policies in 2016 3). Yet this same population consistently shows over 70% support for farmed animal welfare policies such as cage-free and slower-growth in surveys, and consistently over 50% support in actual ballot measures 4. This data indicates that public support tends to be much larger for institutional change than individual change towards the same outcome (e.g. ending animal farming, switching to cage-free eggs), and therefore it’s easier to achieve those outcomes through institutional change.
When we think of the big-picture question of “How do we end animal farming?” it seems clear that convincing every last consumer to choose to go vegan is probably an impossible task. But it doesn’t look like we even need to make half of the population vegan or even vegetarian before they’ll be ready to adopt “clean meat” en masse, or successfully campaign and vote against factory farming, slaughterhouses, or all animal farming. So we may be allocating our resources poorly when we ask individuals to change their diets instead of asking them to help us campaign for institutional change.
2. There is much more historical precedent for institutional change. It’s hard to find any examples of successful social movements that have focused on individual change. Two possible examples, the Free Produce Movement in the 19th century United States antislavery movement, and “green consumerism” in modern environmentalism, have both largely been seen as ineffective within their broader movements. Many movements have successfully used boycotts, such as the sugar boycott in the British antislavery movement, but these have been limited in scope and have served, more or less explicitly, in a supporting role to a broader call for institutional change.That said, public health campaigns, such as antismoking, have focused on individual messaging, and their success stands as weak evidence in favor of individual change. However, they are quite different than farmed animal advocacy in that the main benefit of change is an increase in the welfare of the consumer.
3. Human psychology suggests institutional change generates more public support. First, we know that people struggle with the “collapse of compassion” when it comes to large social issues like animal farming. The leading explanation for the lack of concern is that the requirements for solving the problem are overwhelming, so people regulate their emotions to avoid wasting their concern on something that seems unsolvable. Institutional change tackles this mechanism directly by focusing on the tractable solution to the entire issue, rather than just the “drop in the bucket” of individual diet change. Second, institutional change helps people feel anger and the specific emotion of “moral outrage” because it positions the perpetrators as external parties or society as a whole, rather than one’s self as with individual change. These emotions seem crucial for the momentum of social change. Third, institutional change more easily conveys “social pressure,” indicating that many people are working on changing the system and that it requires collective action. Social pressure is a key psychological motivator.
2. STOP USING GIMMICKS SUCH AS SEXUALIZED IMAGES OF WOMEN AND CUTE, CARTOONISH ANIMAL COSTUMES.
There are a variety of tactics that are frequently employed by farmed animal advocates because they get lots of attention, but that appear to generate so much negative attention or to present the issue in such a trivializing way that they are overall harmful to the farmed animal movement. We’d like to see the movement stop using these tactics entirely. Concrete examples include:
- The “sex sells” strategy of sexualized images/video/audio of women in order to promote vegetarianism or animal rights. This is most common with billboards, leaflets, commercials, and other materials that have pictures of naked or scantily-clad women in sexualized poses.
- Other provocative tactics that conflict with other important social movements, such as raising awareness of the health benefits of a vegan diet by making hurtful jokes about fat people.
- Costumes of farmed animals in almost any context, with possible exceptions for situations where the seriousness of animal welfare is being very strongly conveyed (e.g. an on-stage theater performance) or situations where the costumes are extremely useful for connecting with the particular audience (e.g. a presentation to elementary school children).
- Other tactics that portray farmed animal advocates as immature, silly, or strange, such as wrapping activists in aluminum foil as human-sized burritos. While some of these tactics generate enough positive attention that they are worthwhile, many are too offputting. A good question for animal advocates to ask themselves is, “Can I imagine a human-focused social movement, such as anti-racism, using this same tactic successfully?”
1. Some of the biggest challenges faced by farmed animal advocates seem to have been created or exacerbated by these tactics. Farmed animal advocates frequently deal with audience responses that animal issues are trivial or less important than human issues, as well as concerns that animal rights clashes with other movements such as feminism and anti-racism. When probed, the audience usually connects these concerns to gimmicks such as sexualized images of women and animal costumes 5.Indeed, it seems most farmed animal advocates have encountered the dreaded, “Are you PETA?” question asked in a dismissive and disapproving tone. The purported advantage of these tactics is that they lead to increased attention, but attention doesn’t seem to be a major bottleneck of the movement right now, so the “all press is good press” attitude seems likely to cost us too much in reputation and institutional power.
2. These tactics lack historical precedent. While all social movements seek out attention, none seem to have done it with the self-trivializing gimmicks frequently used by animal advocates. For example, I know of no other movement where allies of the oppressed group dressed up as members of the oppressed group, even when the oppressed group was unable to speak up as effectively as their allies (as farmed animals are unable to politically organize in human society). Neither has any other movement so heavily used sexualized images of women6. In fact, when we imagine if another movement did these things, such as men dressing up as women in a public demonstration for women’s rights in the 1800s (or today, for that matter), it seems offensive, belittling, disempowering, strange, and probably very ineffective.
3. Experimental research suggests “sex doesn’t sell.” There’s some weak experimental evidence that shows no improvement or even a negative effect from sexualization, including two randomized trials of PETA advertisements that used either sexualized or non-sexualized images of women, which provide direct evidence that the strategy backfires for animal advocates. Both trials showed less intention to support PETA after viewing sexualized images, and found a mediating factor of the dehumanization of women.
3. MAINTAIN A MORAL FOCUS WHEN PROMOTING ANIMAL-FREE FOOD TECHNOLOGY.
Many farmed animal advocates these days see food technology, especially clean meat, as a silver bullet for the issues of animal farming. One common argument is that price, taste, and convenience are what really matter to consumers, so if we can just beat conventional animal products in those dimensions, we’ll succeed in ending animal farming. We think that this goes too far when advocates (which includes not just nonprofit staff, but also journalists, businesspeople, and everyone else supporting animal-free foods) focus heavily on price, taste, and convenience. Advocates should continue to emphasize the moral benefits, particularly animal welfare, of animal-free food technology.
More specifically, we think ethics should be the primary message in most contexts, ahead of price, taste, and convenience. For example, in an op-ed or letter to the editor that advocates for clean meat, the ethical benefits should usually be most prominent, ahead of personal and commercial benefits. (There is an exception here for industry publications, such as an article in Feedstuffs that’s aimed exclusively at people in animal agriculture and related industries.)
Note that most of the farmed animal movement is already focused on moral messaging, so this change isn’t as big as the first two. It would mainly apply to animal-free food companies and corporate-focused nonprofits who currently focus less than non-corporate-focused nonprofits on the moral argument. We’re still including this suggested change because maintaining a moral focus in the development of animal-free foods seems very important for ensuring the long-term success of the farmed animal movement.
1. This seems to do more to create a world where factory-farming-like practices are less likely. There’s an important need for animal advocates to end the harms of animal farming as quickly as possible, but we also need to keep in mind the capacity of future generations of humans to cause suffering on an even larger scale. The biggest impact of ending animal farming might not be through helping farmed animals, but through building a world in which astronomical suffering is less likely. Because of this, ensuring the end of animal farming is as morally-driven as possible seems very important. In general, social movements have good reason to focus on the values they most strongly believe in, even if other values sometimes seem more instrumentally useful. In addition to long-term effects, this also makes it more likely that incremental changes are positive, such as reducing the number of situations where consumers decrease red meat consumption but eat more chickens and fish.
2. The moral focus is more powerful for social change and for overcoming personal concerns like worrying that animal-free food technology is unnatural. Health, price, taste, and the convenience of food are all important for individual purchasing decisions, perhaps even more than ethics, though it depends on how you measure each of these factors. However, if our strategy for achieving widespread clean meat adoption is institutional instead of individual — which as we’ve argued, it should be — then foregrounding the ethical motivation to end factory farming and animal slaughter is likely to be a much more powerful tool, as people seem much more easily motivated by ethics to work towards building a social movement and creating institutional change.
Even on the individual level, this is an important distinction when it comes to overcoming concerns that new animal-free food technology is unnatural or otherwise unappealing. The factors of price, taste, and convenience are largely seen as trivial concerns, such that people are frequently willing to sacrifice them based on personal preference. For example, if you see a food as gross, you’ll probably be willing to go with a different, more expensive, perhaps even less tasty (i.e. scores worse in blind taste tests for a general audience) food. Ethics is different. If society determines a certain product is unethical, this can trump all trivial concerns in a way that the other factors can’t. If society recognized animal farming as unethical or as a moral catastrophe, then it would be unacceptable to purchase conventional animal products simply because the alternative seems unnatural, gross, or otherwise unappealing. For example, Hummers developed this ethical stigma in the United States in the 2000s, and owning one for reasons of personal preference could not be justified in many social circles. We see similar stigmatized products for animal, environmental, and human rights concerns, such as palm oil, chocolate, and coffee beans without fair trade certifications — though these have been stigmatized in relatively small segments of the general population.
3. If we avoid a moral focus, we enter a dangerous territory where animal-free food technology might be seen as profit-driven. Regardless of your opinion on GMOs, it’s true that many people dislike them simply because they see the main driver of GMO technology as large, opaque corporations wanting to increase profits, regardless of impacts on consumers and on the planet. Currently, animal-free food technology is doing well at avoiding this perception. It’s seen as driven by activists, thoughtful young entrepreneurs, and the growing public opposition to factory farming. This is reason for optimism, but we have to preserve this moral focus. A focus on health is also useful for avoiding this downside, as well as other strategies like ensuring start-ups rather than big food companies are the face of this emerging industry.
4. Focusing on the moral upsides reduces the extent to which animal-free food opposition can focus on perceived downsides. This seems to be a consistent issue with controversial new technologies. Advocates focus too much on arguing that downsides are minimal or nonexistent, which frames the public discussion as, “Is this technology safe?” This makes consumers think about and focus on the downsides themselves. We found evidence supporting this conclusion in our recent reports on nuclear power 7 and GM foods 8.
Featured image: Young pigs at a pig farm in Finland, 2015. Image credit Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.
- You can see a brief summary of the results here, though note that (i) we had fewer respondents than we expected, and (ii) most respondents didn’t want us to publish their responses, even anonymously. We hope to write a blog post at a later date with more detailed thoughts on community feedback based on this survey and other materials.
- I think a particular fault of the effective animal advocacy community to date has been focusing too much on obvious strategic suggestions with virtually no disagreement, such as the need for advocates to maintain work-life balance or the need to use metrics.
- The data for this is a bit tricky, but consider the graph in this article showing around 20 million US cage-free hens, and the total flock size from this page of 305 million egg-laying hens.
- This probably shouldn’t be taken as substantial evidence that people show more support in polls than in ballot measures because there are numerous other variables, such as question wording and timing (e.g. first ballot measure was all the way back in 2002).
- See, for example:
- This concern about the historical precedent of sexualization and gimmicks is related to a concern about the historical precedent for a consumer focus. It seems rare for successful movements to present themselves as a consumer trend in the way farmed animal advocates have.
- “This implies that, in addition to doing everything possible to reduce the possibility of safety incidents with clean meat, it is sound strategy to avoid dwelling on safety risks with clean meat, even in an effort to rebut them, and to focus instead on positive aspects of clean meat rather than preexisting fears and to be especially wary of risking incidents that would confirm preexisting concerns.” – J. Mohorcich, What can nuclear power teach us about the institutional adoption of clean meat?
- “Focusing on the positive aspects of a technology has been more successful for encouraging its adoption than focusing on responding to negative perceptions.” – J. Mohorcich, What can the adoption of GM foods teach us about the adoption of other food technologies?