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More on ARMEDIA

A Response to Vegan Outreach’s Commentary (5/21/02)
Regarding ARMEDIA’s Focus Group Report (Released April 2002)

Vegan Outreach’s comments are in red.

Assumptions

Vegan Outreach (VO), in the organization’s newsletter Vegan Spam, has offered thoughtful commentary on the focus group report released by The ARMEDIA Institute in April of this year. While we respectfully disagree with VO’s analysis of the methodology used and results obtained, we encourage this kind of questioning and welcome feedback on ARMEDIA’s future research endeavors.

VO begins by asserting that ARMEDIA’s conclusions are based on two assumptions: 1) that non-vegetarians know what would most effectively convince them to try vegetarianism; and 2) that the health argument leads to strict vegetarianism instead of increased consumption of chickens and fish.

Assumption number one is not an assumption at all, but rather an inherent limitation of focus groups as a research methodology. Focus groups are qualitative in nature, meaning that they do not yield statistical results, but instead yield information that can be used directionally to understand the attitudes of a group, which was the objective with this study. This study shows that, in general, non-vegetarians are not receptive to cruelty as an argument for vegetarianism and, more importantly, that health is likely a more effective initial motivator. [We do not see how this can be claimed about “motivation,” as it implies a behavior change; their focus groups did not measure behavior change. It is quite possible that something that interests does not motivate, and vice versa.]

Assumption number two does not follow from the focus group report, and nothing among ARMEDIA’s conclusions is predicated upon it. In fact, health empirically does not lead to “strict vegetarianism,” but rather an incremental reduction in meat consumption, arguably a more viable way of reducing animal slaughter. Many respondents in the focus groups talked of a possible reduction in animal consumption for health reasons. [A reduction in the consumption of meat is not the same as a reduction in the number of animals consumed.]

VO is correct in stating that there has been a massive increase in consumption of chicken and fish during the past two decades, and further that this trend is partly because of perceived relative health benefits of consuming those types of animal protein. However, ARMEDIA would argue that health as an argument for vegetarianism has been used ineffectively, focused as it has been on the ill effects of red meat consumption. [The veg movement has gone after chicken, eggs, milk, and fish based on health grounds; see book by Dr. Donna Maurer. The perceived focus on red meat has probably been because much of the actual health data has implicated only red meat.] Further, the focus groups suggest that people are more likely to accept the ethical reasons for choosing vegetarianism once they’ve already reduced or omitted animal products from their diet for health reasons. So while health may be a more tentative path to vegetarianism, it can also open the door for a strong ethical or environmental argument to solidify that conviction. [This could be a good argument, but it assumes there is a strong case against chicken and fish. While there might be a case for not eating large amounts of chicken (which is true for soy, too), there is not a very good case for eating none. We don’t believe that claiming all meat is bad for you is an appropriate message to a skeptical public.]

Methodology

VO believes that ARMEDIA’s focus groups suffered from two methodological flaws– sample selection and research design.

Sample Selection– In VO’s critique of the ARMEDIA report, it claims that the age groups represented by non-vegetarian participants cannot be extrapolated for the younger target audience of vegetarian advocacy. This is partly true, but it also makes the incorrect assumption that younger audiences are the only target of vegetarian advocates. In public outreach efforts, advocates are not often faced with a homogeneous audience [True. There is bound to be a mixture of people who are persuaded by graphic pictures of animals and people who are turned off by such pictures. Why throw out the baby with the bathwater by getting rid of the graphic pictures when the people who are persuaded by such pictures are those most likely to change their behavior and stick with the diet?]; a mix of participants will more likely represent a general response to changes in advocacy. And as ARMEDIA states in the report, this is intended as a first in a series of such studies, and inclusion of a wide variety of participants was intentional to identify the most interesting areas in which to drill down for future research. [This is not emphasized in their Conclusions, which seemed to state as proven fact that the use of graphic images is harmful, and that the health argument is the way to go.]

Research Design– VO correctly questions the use of focus groups to measure behavior modification. However, VO states that “focus groups are useful in measuring the current knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of a population,” which is incorrect. As stated above, focus groups are intended to provide directional information regarding attitudes and behaviors, not to explicitly measure that behavior. ARMEDIA did not intend with this study to measure participant behavior, but rather to identify the range and relative importance of factors that might influence non-vegetarians to choose vegetarianism. This kind of probing is well-suited to focus groups. Further, it is well-known that the group dynamics of this research type can influence the candor of peoples’ reactions, and those qualifications are written into the report. However, it is worth noting that ARMEDIA took steps to mitigate that influence by splitting the groups by dietary choice and by gender. [Splitting the groups might have harmed as much as it helped; it certainly doesn't mirror any real-world advocacy situation. If the groups had been mixed, perhaps the nonvegetarians would have been less likely to dismiss the message outright. In an actual situation, the pedestrian is often in a one-to-one interaction with a vegetarian who is asking them to consider the information. They are also able to read and consider the information over time, without having to answer questions about it.]

Point-by-Point Response

  • VO: 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).

ARMEDIA: True, health was a focal point for the animal rights movement for many years, but in ARMEDIA’s opinion the failure of health as an argument for vegetarianism was a failure of the advocates rather than the message. [ARMEDIA presents their results as a research-based approach to advocacy. However, they do not give a reason for claiming that previous activists failed with the health message, how they have failed, nor what course of action they can take in the future.] As indicated in the focus groups, health may not be the most appropriate argument for younger audiences, which is clearly the primary focus of VO. However, ARMEDIA argues that health as an argument has been inappropriately used, and particularly that health is a viable argument for older age groups.

An essential conclusion from these focus groups must be that no single argument will work for a large segment of the population. People of different gender, age, and social group will respond differently to various arguments. Instead of throwing all arguments at a prospective vegetarian and seeing which one sticks– the current dominant approach– the vegetarian advocacy movement should separate those arguments and identify to which groups it can most effectively target them. [There are, of course, reasons to present the arguments as Vegan Outreach and others do, not the least of which is for those who do change to understand the health issues (so as to avoid "I was vegan for a while, but…") as well as to have them show family and friends the entire case. We do not believe that the majority of people will go veg right now, no matter how "focused" the message. Regardless, Vegan Outreach does target audiences to some extent, with both Why Vegan and Vegetarian Living.] Accomplishing this will require the movement to place much more emphasis on the type of research conducted by ARMEDIA. [We fear that unless such research moves beyond focus groups, the results could be as misleading as helpful.]

  • VO: Meat contamination issues are regularly exposed in the mainstream media reaching 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?

ARMEDIA: No, “animal rights” activists cannot be expected to be more effective at reaching the public with these messages, but “public health activists” or their equivalent can be. The entire point is to separate animal advocacy from other, more credible objectives such as health advocacy, environmental advocacy, social justice advocacy, etc. The mainstream media has done some work in this area, but where the media leaves off, grassroots organizations can pick up and help consumers understand what they can do to make a difference, translating the knowledge into actual change. [Given the limited number of activists, the limited amount of resources, and the size of the receptive audience we have yet to reach with compelling information, our time is probably not best spent masquerading as public health activists. We are skeptical that animal activists acting as public health activists can do a better job than the mainstream media and medical communities, who have not succeeded in changing the standard American diet to any great extent.]

  • VO: 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.

ARMEDIA: “Leanings toward vegetarianism” can be defined broadly to include anyone who is susceptible to vegetarianism for some reason. The point is that with an argument based on cruelty to animals, an argument in which is shown graphic images to (legitimately) shock the viewer into caring, vegetarian advocates win over a segment of the population (younger, more progressive, affinity groups, etc.), but risk alienating even larger segments of the population. [How can we be sure that people who claim to be "turned off" by graphic
pictures, will never be willing to change only because they have seen graphic pictures? It's hard to believe that they will forever dismiss every pro-vegetarian argument simply because they know some people are opposed to the animal suffering involved in factory farming.
] To be clear, ARMEDIA is not arguing that vegetarian advocates abandon graphic imagery as an advocacy tool, but is suggesting that the movement needs to redefine the mix with which it delivers different messages to the public.

People can be (and are) swayed by reading Why Vegan, but even a casual look at the demographics of those people shows that this approach does not reach the diverse groups of people that are needed to bring an idea into the mainstream. [Why Vegan has succeeded at persuading people of all ages. Granted, we get more responses from younger people – but any change will likely come more from younger people, as they are generally more open to change. People of all ages are resistant to changing their diets for health reasons. During his dietetic internship, Jack Norris of Vegan Outreach experienced most people in a hospital being resistant to changing their diets small amounts, even when their lives depended on it.] In ARMEDIA’s opinion, Why Vegan is likely more effective at creating animal rights activists than it is at creating vegetarians or vegans, meaning that it will very deeply affect a limited number of people. This is a valuable service, but it makes one question the use of such materials except with very specific audiences. [Given our limited resources, our audience are those who are willing to / most likely to change. We believe that this is whom we should be focusing on, instead of trying not to offend anyone in the general public. We also believe that creating activists is of greatest importance if there is going to be grassroots change.]

Conclusion

VO says in its conclusion that ARMEDIA’s focus group report indicates that “the animal rights argument should be emphasized.” This is incorrect. The evidence from these focus groups suggests most importantly that all arguments do not apply to all people, and therefore that deliberate messaging and targeting of pro-vegetarian arguments would be most effective. Further, the report’s results suggest that health is currently an underemphasized approach, while animal cruelty (including also “animal rights” and ethics) is overemphasized.

[We noted that the people in the ARMEDIA study who were vegetarian said they were vegetarian because of animal cruelty (ARMEDIA’s report did not say why the vegetarians originally became vegetarian, so we do not know). Thus, the only evidence presented about behavior change supports using the arguments about animals.

In other words, the middle-aged non-vegetarians said they were not going to go vegetarian, but if they were to do so, it wouldn't be because of graphic pictures, it would be for their health. The vegetarians said they were vegetarian for animal cruelty reasons. From this, ARMEDIA concludes that the health argument is the way to go. We disagree that this is the correct conclusion to draw.]

The vegetarian advocacy movement does indeed need more advocates, and VO has proven itself adept at creating them. However, by emphasizing all-in-one advocacy tools like Why Vegan, in ARMEDIA’s opinion VO and the movement have prioritized the creation of advocates over conversion of the population to vegetarianism. The two are not synonymous, and ARMEDIA believes that there is much that can be done by researching and refining the approaches of existing advocacy groups to more effectively communicate with pre-vegetarians.

This notion can be extended to the terminology and messages used by vegetarian advocates versus vegan advocates. ARMEDIA believes that the incremental benefit to animals of veganism over vegetarianism is much overemphasized. [We would argue that avoiding eggs (see also COK's investigation), especially, can do as much to help animals as giving up meat.] Given that vegetarianism is an easier concept for most members of the general public to understand and agree with, and further given that a vegetarian diet does much more for animals than the incremental part of a vegan diet, ARMEDIA feels that vegetarianism should be emphasized with most target audiences. [We haven’t found that it’s an all or nothing thing. We often debate the issue of whether to focus on vegetarianism or veganism, but have not found a way to resolve it. It is why we have the pamphlet Vegetarian Living, which does not mention the word vegan, for those who prefer this tactic.] Further, as mentioned above, once a person has chosen vegetarianism, they are more open to the ethical argument, which can then be used to solidify the person’s dietary convictions and help them progress toward veganism.

As with any initial research project, the ARMEDIA report asks more questions than it answers, giving vegetarian advocates a taste of what can be learned by applying these methodologies to the issue of vegetarianism. It is essential that vegetarian advocacy groups work together to conduct more research in these areas, which will be a focus of ARMEDIA’s. [We agree, and hope ARMEDIA works with other groups in the future.]

Vegan Outreach has thoughtfully and correctly pointed out several limitations with focus groups as a methodology, and with the conclusions that ARMEDIA has drawn from them. We welcome open debate and discussion of the usefulness of both the research type and the results, and appreciate Vegan Outreach’s willingness to allow this rebuttal. [ARMEDIA admits that we bring up serious concerns, but they have not amended their report.]

 

Vegan Outreach’s Final Thoughts

Vegan Outreach originally developed (and continues to refine) our literature based on our observations and feedback from the past 10+ years. We've observed that the people we know who actually altered their diet most often changed because of interactions with friends, or by reading a book or watching a video about factory farming and other issues surrounding vegetarianism. We did not see people changing from television, radio, or newspaper media clips. We then asked ourselves, “How can we best approximate the effect that these interactions with friends and/or these books and videos have on large numbers of people?" The answer was a comprehensive, yet inexpensive booklet focused mainly on the factory farming of animals.

There are not a tremendous number of types of venues to reach people with literature. They include campuses, events such as Earth Day, walkathons, music concerts, or city parks and streets. ARMEDIA considers Why Vegan and Vegetarian Living to be geared towards a younger crowd who are more open to the ethical arguments and graphic pictures. To some extent, this is true, given that young people are also more open to change. They also have more years of eating ahead of them.

Even when approaching a non-student crowd, there is bound to be a mixture of people who are persuaded by graphic pictures of animals and people who are turned off by such pictures. It is still our belief -- and we have seen nothing to the contrary -- that more pedestrians are going to be persuaded by a pamphlet with graphic pictures than a pamphlet dedicated to the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Also, as mentioned in our original comments, we fear that the health argument (such as it is) may continue to lead to more animals being eaten (i.e., chickens and fish). There is also the longer-term motivation of creating broader awareness of the conditions of factory farms in an attempt to bring about support for true reforms, such as those in the European Union.

We appreciate that ARMEDIA is willing to discuss these issues, and we wish them luck in persuading as many people to become vegetarian as possible by whatever means they choose.