Animal advocates tend to be a pretty un-homogenous bunch, despite sharing a common belief system around respect for all life. Once you become aware of the atrocities that are committed against animals just through the course of day-to-day life, it can be hugely challenging to know what to do with that information.
Some people become vegan, thankfully. And then once they do, feel an overwhelming need to share what they’ve learned and convince others. This is often accompanied by feelings of depression, futility, and anger. These very legitimate feelings – especially anger – often end up driving these advocates’ outreach actions, and it may not lead to the most effective ends.
It’s hard NOT to be angry. When looking at it from the other side of mainstream society, it seems absolutely ridiculous that such torment is inflicted and vast resources are used to satisfy needs as trivial as liking the way something tastes, or being fashionable. It’s easy to be overcome by this, and feel compelled to take any opportunity to push back against it.
The challenge though, as advocates, is balancing our emotional need to feel like we are doing something for animals, with maintaining a critical eye on the overall effectiveness of our tactics. As a group, vegans are terrible at having this dialogue. I have moderated vegan groups on the web for close to a decade, and it often devolves into an argument between straw men. Very vocal advocates become incensed by any critique of tactics, while more laissez faire advocates become paralyzed with fear and focus ALL critique on other activists rather than on the issues that unite them. We have to find a way to overcome this, on both sides. We can’t defeat the larger “enemy” if we are constantly in-fighting, but I also strongly believe that more vocal activists should not use this as an argument to suppress or dismiss legitimate discussion and dissent. We ALL should be open to evidence-based discussion, even if it means we have to re-visit our approach.
What follows is a partial summary of my presentation at Toronto Veg Food Fest, Marketing Veganism: Earning Friends and Allies for a More Vegan World. It is, at its heart, about being effective as an advocate for animals and veganism. I incorporate study and survey results, marketing and communications principals, and even some behavioural psychology. In fact, I was forced to adjust some of my own beliefs and practices that didn’t align with what the evidence was telling me.
Major shifts are occurring that are permeating society’s collective psyche; Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, Esther the Wonder Pig, Cecil the Lion, Bill Clinton, and the growing number of vegan celebrities. Much of it has been driven by the power of individual stories and voices. People care deeply about the story of one individual, but tend to tune out anything happening on a large scale.
I think that if we play our cards right, the tipping point – the point at which an idea becomes widely accepted within society – is within reach.
There are two critical goals when MARKETING veganism.
Firstly, we need to make veganism seem appealing and doable both to attract potential vegans, AND to earn to earn the acceptance of the general public so that it’s easier to be vegan, or at least choose the vegan option.
Very few people will be inspired to overhaul their lives by joining a movement that is filled with negativity, and that will seemingly make their lives unpleasant and difficult. The more people who are vegan, mostly vegan, partly vegan, or at least vegan-friendly, the more likely we are to create the momentum that’s needed to create a new norm.
Secondly, we need to make sure that people know HOW to go – and stay – vegan.
According to a study cited in the book Veganomics, written by Nick Cooney for every person who has made a change, and is going vegetarian or vegan, there are five others who intend to, but haven’t.
Many people WANT to change. But we need people to do more than nod their heads in agreement. We need them to stop eating animal ingredients, or at least, eat less. It’s not easy being vegan in a non-vegan world. Making the jump to a wholly vegan lifestyle is not something that many people feel comfortable doing.
We have a few options. We can let our frustration take over, and shame and berate them. Or we can dig deeper and find our patience and strive to meet them where they are, and help them along their way.
Vegan advocates don’t have the millions – or billions – of marketing budget dollars that the dairy and meat industries spend to convince people that it’s perfectly normal to treat animals in a way that we know is absolutely insane. We don’t have custom, tradition, familiarity or convenience on our side either.
One thing that studies show is that most people purport to agree with the values that underpin veganism. But for whatever reason, their actions do not align with their beliefs.
The only way we have any hope of getting mainstream practice of vegan ideals is by convincing enough people that veganism and vegans are normal, aspirational and even preferable, and showing that it is EASY to act.
In my experience, there seem to be two mutually exclusive “approaches” that are practiced by many vegans in a non-vegan world
A more aggressive, uncompromising, shaming approach.
I find that many vegans end up sharing everything they come across on the web to their social feeds, alienating their non-vegan friends and family and ultimately suffering burn out, despair and social isolation.
But people around them tune this out, and instinctively want to distance themselves. They don’t know on what to focus, or really understand what the message is.
The urgency to do something – anything – for animals is a real and driving force. But doing something isn’t always better.
And a passive live and let live approach, based on a reverence for the concept of “personal choice.”
On the other hand, live and let live vegans often end up feeling socially isolated; their vegan needs are not being met in social situations, because they are not advocating effectively for them.
They feel like an inconvenience, and because they stay silent, people are not forced to question their own decisions, AND the only message people take away is that life as a vegan is miserly and full of salad.
These vegans are fearful that saying anything could result in bad feelings. And sometimes it may, because even if we aren’t sharing uncomfortable truths, our very existence represents a challenge to deeply seated habits.
I believe that there is a middle ground. I believe that we can get what we need as vegans and for the animals by treating our interactions with others every single day as an opportunity for vegan advocacy.
And on a larger scale, by reaching out to groups, organizations and influencers who might be sympathetic to a vegan message, but who are not themselves necessarily vegan.
Building bridges with constructive engagement, rather than approaching everything as a fight. By cultivating our ability to empathize with others and their challenges.
Part two of this post will identify four key strategies for creating a more vegan world.
Pamela Tourigny is an Ottawa-based expert on the subjects of veganism and vegan advocacy, sustainability, and ethical consumerism. She also consults with business clients with their marketing, communications and public relations needs, and with restaurants on adapting their menus to introduce plant-based options. Contact her here.