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Vegan Outreach is a 501(c)(3)
nonprofit organization dedicated to
reducing the suffering of farmed animals
by promoting informed, ethical eating.

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Vegan Outreach
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Vegan Outreach Enewsletter  •  May 21, 2002

 

Two pieces of research regarding vegetarianism have recently been published. The first, a book by Dr. Donna Maurer, builds on the years of research that went into her PhD dissertation.

The other, more publicized report, is based on work with focus groups containing 14 non-vegetarians in Seattle.

As explained below, the ARMEDIA conclusions appear to be based on two assumptions:

  1. Non-vegetarians know what is the most effective argument to convince them to try vegetarianism;
  2. The “health argument” leads to strict vegetarianism, instead of to increased consumption of chickens and fishes.

We would argue that these are not accurate assumptions. Read on for more details…

 

Commentary on Two Recent Analyses of Effective Means for Spreading Vegetarianism

by Jack Norris

Part 1: Book Review:
Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? by Donna Maurer, PhD

Available from Temple University for $19.95 (get a 30% Discount through the end of May)

Is vegetarianism a fad that is here today but may very well be gone tomorrow? Will the percentage of vegetarians in North America ever increase significantly? How can we attract more people to vegetarianism? In her book, Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment, Dr. Donna Maurer examines these questions.

Dr. Maurer has written an extensive, interesting history of the vegetarian movement in North America, discussing the various tactics used to expand the numbers of vegetarians. Chapter 2 includes a historical overview of vegetarianism in the U.S., while Chapter 3 gives a history of the contemporary vegetarian movement in the U.S.

Dr. Maurer allows the reader to step away from the movement and look back at it. It is an attempt to “see the forest, despite the trees.” We especially recommend the book to new vegetarian advocates; reading Vegetarianism early in one’s advocacy could quickly advance thinking on the subject, saving years of trial and error. As the saying goes: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Dr. Maurer frames vegetarian advocacy as two movements:

  • Ethical movement – calling on people to change for the collective good
  • Exemplary movement – calling on people to change for their own individual benefit

Dr. Maurer stresses that a collective identity must be shared for people to become active promoters of vegetarianism. She says, “Aware that [becoming vegetarian for health reasons] is the most common scenario, many vegetarian leaders seek to move health-motivated, self-interested 'exemplary' vegetarians to a more ethical focus that centers on caring more about other humans and animals.” However, the dilemma is that a collective identity can scare people away who do not want to be a part of that identity, such as health-motivated potential vegetarians.

Dr. Maurer says, “The North American vegetarian movement has always taken an exemplary approach.” She points out some drawbacks to this approach:

Health-centered strategies may appeal to a relatively wide audience, but they are more likely to motivate people to try vegetarian foods or to experiment with semivegetarian diets than to motivate a cadre of committed vegetarian advocates.... Convincing people that meat (including poultry and fish) is so unhealthful that they should eliminate it completely from their diets would seem a difficult, if not insurmountable task….As a result, people often move toward vegetarianism by cutting back on their consumption of meat, or they try vegetarianism briefly and then give it up.

People motivated by health concerns tend to be less committed to vegetarianism than those motivated by ethics.

In discussing the various tactics of vegetarian groups (i.e., groups whose main purpose is to promote vegetarians), Dr. Maurer says, “As we have noted, however, most vegetarian groups – with the notable exception of EarthSave International – address personal health benefits before presenting environmental reasons for vegetarianism.”

In Chapter 8, Dr. Maurer asks the question, “Why hasn’t the vegetarian movement had more success? She contends it is because we have not proven to the public that:

  1. Meat eating is imminently dangerous, nor
  2. Meat eating is immoral

One of these is required for success. As for approach one, Dr. Maurer states, “Convincing people that meat (including poultry and fish) is so unhealthful that they should eliminate it completely from their diets would seem a difficult, if not insurmountable, task.” However, she also points out that strategy #2 may produce more of a movement for reforming farm practices than vegetarianism. [This may not be an all together bad thing, though, given that true reforms could reduce a great deal of animal suffering.]

Dr. Maurer does not give a specific recommendation for how the vegetarian movement should proceed. Her conclusion seems to be that more people are persuaded to try vegetarianism for health benefits, but if we do not succeed in converting these people to the ethical arguments, our movement will not grow to any great extent.

 

Part 2: Comments on ARMEDIA Focus Group Report: April 2002

ARMEDIA Institute is a non-profit, animal advocacy organization conducting research on how best to spread vegetarianism and help farmed animals. They recently conducted focus groups exploring methods for spreading vegetarianism.

They conducted 4 separate focus groups:

  • 7 female vegetarians; average age: 31
  • 7 female non-vegetarians; average age: 36
  • 9 male vegetarians; average age: 25
  • 7 male non-vegetarians; average age: 39

The group moderator asked questions about why the vegetarians are vegetarian, why the non-vegetarians aren’t vegetarian, and what they think of animal rights and vegetarian advocates. Two pieces of literature were assessed: Peta’s Vegetarian Starter Kit and Vegan Outreach’s Vegetarian Living (the less graphic version of Why Vegan; see a pdf version at the advocacy resource page).

Some of the highlights of the report:

Graphic Pictures

While the vegetarians were not offended by graphic pictures, the non-vegetarians found them “sensational,” and said the pictures made them more resistant to the vegetarian message. On the other hand, non-vegetarians who ate fewer animal products were more open to graphic images because they did not feel so responsible.

What Prevents Non-Vegetarians from Trying Vegetarianism?

ARMEDIA says, “Non-vegetarians cite taste, accessibility (convenience, cost), and variety, generally in that order, as the key reasons why they would not want or be able to adopt a vegetarian diet…According to a non-vegetarian female respondent, age 38: “the only thing at this point in my life that would (convince me to adopt a vegetarian diet) would be a directive from my physician saying ‘you need to stop eating (meat) or you’re going to be dead.’ A doctor’s recommendation or mandate was easily the most influential and most credible potential motivator for non-vegetarian respondents.”

Why Do Vegetarians Choose Their Diet?

The vegetarians were mostly vegetarian for animal rights reasons. They had become vegetarian at a young age – typically during their teens or twenties. The reasons they originally became vegetarian were not determined.

 

Vegan Outreach’s Analysis of ARMEDIA’s Research Methods

We commend ARMEDIA for applying marketing research methods to vegetarian advocacy. When applied correctly, these methods can help identify arguments and literature that are persuasive in promoting vegetarianism to segmented groups. However, ARMEDIA’s focus group research suffers from two methodological flaws that make interpretation difficult – sample selection and research design.

In most focus group research, the participants are picked to represent the target audience for a particular marketing campaign. However, in the ARMEDIA study, the non-vegetarian participants were significantly older than the typical target audience for vegetarian advocacy. The mean age of non-vegetarians in the study was 37, while the mean age of people becoming vegetarian in the study was 17. As ARMEDIA concluded, vegetarian advocacy appears to be best targeted to people in high school and college. Likewise, responses from the older non-vegetarians in the study are not particularly useful in guiding advocacy.

More importantly, ARMEDIA picked a research design that is not useful for measuring behavior modification. Focus groups are useful in measuring the current knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of a population. However, focus groups are unreliable in predicting how behavior can best be modified. In this case, you cannot accurately predict what motivates people to become vegetarian by asking non-vegetarians what they think would motivate them. Non-vegetarians may not like literature that makes them feel uncomfortable. But to get someone to change long-ingrained, pleasurable habits, it may take discomfort. Also, people are not always candid when discussing moral issues in front of others. Sensitive issues lend themselves more to surveys than to focus groups.

To investigate the question rigorously, a different research design would have to be used. Traditionally, questions of behavior modification, such as what motivates people to go vegetarian, are investigated using experimental surveys or tracking panels, employing a control group. Assign randomly-chosen persons of the target audience (non-vegetarians in high school or college) to three or more groups: two or more experimental groups that will be exposed to vegetarian literature of different content (e.g., health arguments, animal welfare arguments), and a control group that will not be exposed to vegetarian literature. Assess the groups’ feelings towards vegetarianism through a survey or panel, before and after exposing the experimental groups to vegetarian literature. See how people’s attitudes and diets have changed after being introduced to the literature. Which literature was more effective? What characteristics in the target group were most correlated with behavior change (age, gender, educational level)? Then track their behavior over a long period of time. Finally, applying appropriate statistical methods is necessary to understand whether the results are simply due to random chance or a true effect.

ARMEDIA’s focus groups give us insight about what older non-vegetarian adults think about vegetarianism and some vegetarian-promoting literature, particularly when in a group setting.

 

Some of ARMEDIA’s Conclusions, Followed by Vegan Outreach’s Comments:

  • “[A] comprehensive reevaluation of the vegetarian advocacy movement’s strategies and tactics is much needed.”

As Donna Maurer points out, promoting vegetarianism for health and environmental reasons was the main ‘public face’ of vegetarianism for many years (arguably decades), and the move towards using graphic pictures of animals is the response to a reassessment of the original U.S. vegetarian movement. ARMEDIA should consider their opinions in the context of a movement that started out mainly focused on the arguments to which they are now suggesting we return our emphasis (i.e., the health argument).

  • “Emphasize the health angle”

Heart and cancer organizations have for years been promoting the eating of more fruits, vegetables, and fiber, and less saturated fat. Yet, Americans still fail miserably at meeting their recommendations. Can vegetarian advocacy organizations succeed where these mainstream organizations have failed?

The non-vegetarians in ARMEDIA’s focus group basically said they won’t go vegetarian unless they are about to die from eating meat. Nothing that vegetarian advocates could offer would be of the magnitude of a doctor telling someone they will die if they do not become vegetarian. Thus, it seems that the health argument, while being more palatable to the general public than animal suffering arguments, is also generally unpersuasive.

In their Executive Summary, ARMEDIA states, “Skepticism of vegetarianism, the animal rights ideology, and the movement’s sources of information is high.” We would suggest that the exaggeration of the health reasons for people to go vegetarian has contributed to this state of skepticism. The health argument also poses some risks. As one focus group participant stated, “For health [reasons] they might cut back or switch to chicken or fish or something.” Many Americans appear to have given up beef for chicken and in so doing, have dramatically increased the number of animals raised in factory farms.

  • “The movement needs more special interest groups focused on issues such as food safety, hormone and antibiotic reduction, cancer prevention, heart disease awareness, wastewater pollution, global hunger, etc.”

Meat contamination issues are regularly exposed in the mainstream media (eg 1, 2), reaching far more people than animal advocates could ever dream of. Yet, they have not resulted in a measurable increase in vegetarianism. Can animal rights activists be expected to be more effective at reaching the public with these messages?

  • “The animal rights and vegetarian advocacy movements are generally effective at targeting people who already have leanings toward vegetarianism, but are deficient in their ability to make pro-vegetarian arguments appeal to more mainstream audiences.”

In our experience, many people who had no idea they were interested in vegetarianism, and others who were downright anti-vegetarian, have been persuaded by getting a Why Vegan handed to them while walking down the street. The graphic images are the main reason for their sudden interest in vegetarianism.

  • Emphasis should be placed on targeting young audiences as they are more susceptible to vegetarian and animal rights arguments.

Something with which we agree! In general, older generations care less about animals than younger generations, and are more resistant to change. Younger generations are more in tune with progressive ideas and opposed to discrimination against other humans and animals.

Vegan Outreach’s Conclusion

The vegetarians in ARMEDIA’s group are vegetarian mostly for animal rights reasons. Although these numbers are not large enough to draw conclusions, ARMEDIA’s own evidence suggests that it’s actually the animal rights argument which should be emphasized.

We simply cannot reach everyone. Trying to do so wastes our precious time and resources on arguments that will only delay society’s acceptance of rights for animals. We should focus our energy reaching younger people who will embrace the ideals of ethical vegetarianism.

For our numbers to grow, we need more vegetarian advocates. As Dr. Maurer points out, only ethically motivated vegetarians can be expected to become advocates to any appreciable degree.

As older generations are replaced by younger, there will be a natural progression towards a more humane society. Instead of trying to make our arguments palatable to older people who are unlikely to change their diet unless their health immediately depends upon it, it makes more sense to target younger audiences, reporting the animal suffering involved in factory farming.

We are not saying that middle-aged or older adults should be ignored completely. But when targeting them, we should not assume that particular methods do or do not work until those methods are tested in a way that can properly determine this.

 

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Vegan Outreach is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the suffering of farmed animals by promoting informed, ethical eating.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Vegan Outreach

POB 30865, Tucson, AZ 85751-0865