Matt Ball is the co-founder, president, and executive director of One Step for Animals. He spoke with ACE Research Associate Kieran Greig on August 8, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
How Content Decisions Are Made
The first leaflet Ball was involved in creating was in 1990. With two friends, he created a leaflet called “Vegetarianism.” This leaflet was created using scholarship money one friend had received from Procter & Gamble; ironically, Procter & Gamble was one of the corporations they protested as an animal advocate. For content, they used general health, environmental, and animal information, because that was what they had at the time. Later, two of the three friends created a leaflet called “Why Vegan?” because they were vegan, were pressured by other vegans to promote only veganism, and wanted other people to go vegan. The early leaflets also had content about zoos and product testing. Essentially, the leaflets just contained personal viewpoints they felt were relevant to the topic and weren’t treated as tools of persuasion. Ball and his friends weren’t meeting their target audience where they were; rather, they were telling their audience where the authors were on the issues.
Their strategy evolved over time. Early leafleters found that when the title of the leaflet said “vegan,” people were more likely to refuse them, because they didn’t think they could ever be vegan.1 In response, they started changing the titles of the leaflets, the content, and also the “ask.” When Ball founded One Step For Animals (“One Step”), they changed their ask in response to a number of facts described on their website. Basically, they are just responding to things they have learned and feedback they have received over the past decades.
When content decisions are made for One Step’s leaflets, there’s a lot of discussion with different people who have done a lot of leafleting and interacted with tens of thousands of individuals. One of these people is Joe Espinosa, the all-time leading volunteer leafleter. He’s been leafleting every semester for over two decades. Dan Kuzma has leafleted a lot and given a lot of presentations. Ball has also interacted a lot with the public. So they all have a lot of experience with their audience. They discuss what to include based on what pictures they have and what sources they have for different claims.
One Step is in the process of A/B testing one leaflet versus another leaflet to determine which is more effective. They don’t look for absolute rates because it’s hard to track down enough of the people who received a leaflet to be useful. Also, the vast majority of people who go vegetarian or vegan go back to eating meat, and when they do, they become anti-spokespeople for vegetarianism. That’s worse than if they had never been vegetarian. If you’re surveying people who went vegetarian after receiving a leaflet, you don’t know whether they will stay vegetarian, so what you really need is to do a longitudinal study to see if they stayed vegetarian. By handing out leaflets alone, the long-term effects are nearly impossible to ascertain.
Even with a leaflet-to-leaflet comparison, you can’t get a long-term measure of effectiveness. As mentioned above, One Step is in the process of A/B testing two leaflets to see which is more effective just in the short term. As of now, they plan to do that test over MTurk, because they can get a better distribution of feedback that way. George Price is in charge of the project, and he’s currently leaning towards using MTurk because they’d get a much bigger and more representative sample for less time and money than by doing a test in the field.
What Content Should Be Included in Leaflets
The point of One Step is that, in the U.S. and most developed countries, even with all our advocacy efforts, people’s consumption of animals is at an all-time high and people have a very low opinion of vegans. Furthermore, four out of five people who go vegetarian will go back to eating meat. People who give up eating red meat often substitute it with chickens, and so 200 or 250 times more animals suffer as a result of their diets. Unfortunately, most of our arguments to promote veganism apply much more to red meat than anything else: for health, red meat is much worse than chicken. For the environment, red meat is also much worse than chicken. Even with an ethical argument, people care more about mammals than about chickens. So that’s one reason why the consumption of chickens has been going up and up. When Ball started as an advocate, 6–7 billion land animals were killed in the U.S. each year, and now it’s over 9 billion. Therefore, One Step focuses on asking people not to eat chicken. They don’t want to do anything at all that could lead people to substitute chicken for red meat—”do no harm” is one of their two guiding principles.
Another factor is what suffering they think they can prevent with their outreach. For example, it could be argued that, per serving, eggs cause more suffering than chicken flesh does. But in general, people don’t connect eggs with cruelty; it’s easier to explain that a chicken had to suffer and die to produce meat than to produce eggs. Similarly, in terms of numbers, advocates might want to talk about fish. But One Step’s target audience is younger people who don’t eat much fish. Additionally, there’s a distinction you would have to make between farmed fish and wild fish, if you’re talking about the amount of suffering caused by diet (i.e., all wild fish will die in some painful way, regardless of if they are caught by humans). Lastly, fish is a harder ask, because people just don’t understand fish as having moral importance to the same degree as other animals. Of the many former vegans Ball knows personally, fish is generally the first thing they add back to their diet.
Ball doubts there are orders of magnitude of difference in the effectiveness of leaflets focused solely on chicken versus those focused on lowering meat consumption in general. He can’t know for sure, because that would take a large-scale, longitudinal field study, which is not practical. In fact, the leaflets focused on chicken may not be any more effective at getting some fraction of people to change their diet in a positive way, but Ball hopes that at least they wouldn’t do harm by causing other people to substitute chicken for red meat, as he fears other leaflets might.
Existing Studies on Leafleting
Ball thinks existing leafleting studies have two main weaknesses: their inability to capture long-term effects or detect recidivism, and their inability to capture negative movement in diet because of social desirability bias. He thinks people who are moved somewhat by a leaflet would be reluctant to say that they eat more chicken because red meat is bad, even if that is what they’re doing. Then there is the question of sample size and geographic representativeness of individual studies. Based on leafleters’ stories and his own experience leafleting in different parts of the country, Ball thinks receptivity to leaflets is very different in different areas, which means that the effectiveness of leafleting may vary by area, which may not be captured in studies that take place in a limited set of locations.
Ball thinks that it’s probably possible to get information about which leaflets performs better relative to one another from a study similar to existing studies. But the problems with social desirability and long-term impacts may be severe enough that it is not possible to get meaningful information about overall effects, although Ball is not a social scientist and doesn’t know this for sure.
Given the problems with leafleting studies, Ball has no way to judge how effective leaflets are. He thinks it is much easier to judge the effectiveness of online outreach, because you can measure concrete steps people take upon seeing ads, like clicking through to a landing page or downloading a guide. Based on the audience, language, image, etc., online ads can vary by more than an order of magnitude in terms of cost-effectiveness, and we can see that in the data and adjust accordingly in real time. This is in no way possible with leafleting. He’s more comfortable estimating the effectiveness of ads on people who have engaged in multiple measurable ways, rather than trying to estimate the effectiveness of leaflets or ads without any metrics or engagement tracking. This is why One Step puts the vast majority of their donors’ contributions to work in online outreach.
Are people converted by leafleting especially likely to be recidivists?
Ball had never considered that recidivism rates might differ based on the mechanism that caused people to go vegan or vegetarian. He does know that in The Humane League’s study of vegetarians, leafleting was pretty low on the list of reasons why people went vegetarian. That might be because of recidivism, if leafleting isn’t as powerful, or simply because leafleting doesn’t reach as many people as other methods.
Arguments for Leafleting
Leafleting gives people who want to help something to do. Some methods, like documentaries, might be more effective, but it’s difficult for one activist to put on a film screening. Conversations are ranked high on the list of what caused people to go veg, but there’s only so many conversations one person can have. Leafleting is a defined activity that anyone can do, and it gets activists into the public and allows others to meet vegetarians and vegans who seem like a positive example.
Weaknesses of Leafleting
In 1990, Matt protested product testing, tried to give talks, and wrote letters to the editor. But these activities didn’t seem very effective, and he didn’t really have other options besides leafleting. Now, however, we have online outreach, and that can allow us to reach more people and do more iterative tests than with leafleting. We have more freedom to tweak the message, measure engagement, and find out what works best, at least in the short term.
How has leafleting changed?
The content has changed a lot, from the early days including zoos and product testing and a lot of use of the word “vegan,” to something that is more focused on creating diet change or even getting people to reduce their consumption of chickens. That’s the main thing that Matt has seen change: they’ve gone from expressing their views to trying to reach the reader where they are and actually create change in new people.
Leafleting in Other Movements
Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, is thought to have had a profound influence on public opinion about the need for the Revolutionary War, and in some sense could be a historical precedent for activist leafleting. Pamphleteering was common in that era, and it was also common in the era around the Civil War, with pamphlets being produced particularly to argue against slavery. Ball doesn’t know of any study about the role that pamphleteering played in those movements. There was, of course, no Facebook at the time.
Outcomes of Leafleting
Ball thinks the outcomes Greig has listed in ACE’s leafleting report make sense. The final medium-term outcome could be expanded; for example, people might be more likely to be sympathetic in voting on a ballot initiative if they’ve seen a leaflet rather than if they hadn’t, even if they don’t go vegetarian. It’s difficult to say whether the shorter-term or longer-term outcomes are more important. People do mostly leaflet because they want to encourage people to change their diet in the short term, and to be more likely to remain vegetarian.
Leafleting Compared to Other Interventions
After decades of promoting and raising money for leafleting, Ball would absolutely not argue for more, or even maintaining the current level of leafleting. Because of the current trends toward increasing the consumption of animals, Ball has three conclusions. First, he supports welfare reforms to immediately reduce suffering and potentially drive up the cost of production. Second, he supports the supply-side work of organizations like The Good Food Institute, which will make people able to buy plant-based alternatives that they don’t even notice as being different from eating meat in terms of cost, convenience, and taste. Lastly, there is a need to do triage now to drive demand for current products by changing public opinion. Based on the lessons of past decades, One Step is trying to do something different to drive this demand without contributing to the increasing number of animals suffering.
Pay-per-view is great, but it’s a hassle to do. VegFund will reimburse it, but as a volunteer advocate, it’s still difficult. Ball doesn’t have a sense of the relative effectiveness of online outreach compared to pay-per-view, but he does know that online outreach scales much more easily than pay-per-view does. Online outreach is also measurable and tweakable in real time.
Ball’s impression is that, outside Vegan Outreach, there aren’t many experienced advocates who would advocate for the movement to do more leafleting than is currently being done.
In the ideal movement, Ball would like everyone who wants to leaflet to be able to access materials to leaflet with. However, he thinks that if you just want to reach young people in a city, you could target them online, probably more easily, more effectively, and more measurably than you could with leafleting. It seems to Ball that we’re nowhere near saturation of online outreach, and because of how systematic you can be with that and how well you can track that, it’s almost certainly vastly more efficient than leafleting. The problem is that it doesn’t give a typical activist something visceral to do, so there is a role for leafleting to do that. Ball thinks the reason there’s been a shift away from leafleting is primarily that online outreach has so many advantages over it and is otherwise similar.
Leafleting reaches around 3 million people a year, a small fraction of the population. (For comparison, One Step—a relatively small player in the online outreach world—reaches about that many people every month with their online ads.) If a small fraction of those leafleted people go vegetarian, that might be a signal you wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up. But the broader point that we’ve systematically been doing dietary outreach for decades without much change is valid. In the U.S., we’ve been doing dietary outreach for a shorter time than in Europe, but it’s still been many years. Per capita consumption of animals has never been higher. Animals have never been worse-off. This is a significant indictment of our tactics as a movement to date.
The only thing Ball can really use to rank interventions would be the chart from Humane League Labs’ survey of vegetarians (which can be found on pages 23–25 of Diet Change and Demographic Characteristics of Vegans, Vegetarians, Semi-Vegetarians, and Omnivores). Based on that chart, handing out leaflets is not one of the main things driving people to be vegetarian or reduce their meat consumption. One of the highest things on that chart was “other,” and it’s not clear what that means. Also, documentaries have been more effective and somewhat ignored by the movement in general, conversations are effective but aren’t really the kind of thing an advocacy group can do (although in The Animal Activist’s Handbook, which Ball co-wrote with Bruce Friedrich, they did try to lay out how to have successful conversations).
One Step as an Organization
As of now, Ball is the only person working for One Step, and everyone else is volunteering their time. This means that they have limited ability to control the timing of some things, because they have to work around people’s availability. But it also means the vast majority of donations go right to continually-optimized online outreach.
One Step does much more online outreach than leafleting, but does some of both.