We recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Carrie Freeman about effective communication strategies for animal rights advocacy. Her most recent publication, Framing Farming, examines a fundamental question in the AR movement: should we construct farming campaign messages based more on utility or ideology? It also offers an analysis of campaign materials from five major AR organizations.
Your recent publication Framing Farming offers a great analysis of communication strategies put into practice by animal rights organizations. Could you summarize the general idea expressed in the book?
I wanted to know how much animal rights organizations actually reflect “animal rights” in their vegetarian campaigns. It relates to being able to frame non-speciesist messages in a speciesist culture. So that’s the challenge; we are all trying to figure out how to end animal exploitation and many of us in the animal rights movement have an abolitionist view in our hearts and minds in terms of wanting to eliminate the use of animals, but that is not where everybody else is in society. Their views are more about animal welfare: “use animals, but do so nicely.” It’s a challenge for us to reach people.
I wanted to talk about animal rights in a way that reaches people and their values and identity. I am not so pragmatic that I want to reach people exactly wherever they are by just promoting behavioral change. I feel like just talking to someone about a person’s cholesterol may make them eat less meat but won’t necessarily encourage them to boycott a circus It’s important for our message to get people to question whether using and killing animals is necessary or just. We need to address the problem not only in terms of human health. Our message needs to give the whole picture. Our vegan campaigns can be more holistic in addressing larger issues that animal advocacy challenges.
I really enjoyed your analysis of different framing techniques used by animal rights organizations. For those who may not be as familiar with communications terminology, what is the importance of strategically framing messages?
Framing, as a communications process, is designed to make a message meaningful, make it reach people on some level. I don’t see it as a manipulative process; I think it is just a natural process of talking in such a way that you emphasize certain points, certain ways of seeing things. I also use the term framing because in social movement studies, that’s a term used in discussing communication.
How is it that AR organizations can tailor a message that is both authentic to the movement and, at the same time, meaningful to those outside the movement?
One difficulty we face is finding a way to make people feel accountable for the ways in which animals are used without putting them off entirely. Animal rights groups tend to frame messages in a way that places blame on animal agribusiness for the treatment of animals. But by doing this we are saying that if agribusiness would reform, we wouldn’t have this problem. However, it’s harder to say that the individual who is eating animal products is responsible. Each person contributing to the demand of animal products is giving money to support this cruelty.
Because of this, animal rights groups tend to approach the audience with a message that is meant to reveal something, to reveal that they are unaware of the cruelty of factory farming because agribusiness purposefully hides it from them. From this message we expect people to stop eating animals. Our message is “Look at this horrible factory farming. You don’t want to contribute to this, do you?” What people outside the movement take away from that is that factory farming is awful, that they need to do things like switch to family farms or a more “natural” kind of farming. I think our message needs to de-naturalize the concept of farming itself.
I like the use of messages that are framed to reinforce the basic notion in human ethics that it’s unethical to cause unnecessary harm. Any question of whether we need to harm animals puts our whole justice system/ethical system into question, which is what our society needs to do. We claim to be democratic and liberty loving and yet we have all these laws and practices that enslave other animals. It is very antithetical to what we say we are as a culture. We should provoke this discussion with our message. Our message may not change someone the first time they hear it, but instead, it changes the parameters of the debate away from questioning the treatment of farmed animals to questioning their very existence.
That seems to be an obstacle when I speak to others about completely removing animal products from their diet. Their response is something like “That’s why I only buy local, free-range,” etc. It makes me think that maybe the way in which I am communicating or the message that I’m conveying is actually promoting the thought that “humane” slaughter is somehow acceptable. Is it possible that animal rights activists are actually creating a message that is counterproductive to the movement?
I think it might be. One of the things in framing literature is that the way you frame the problem needs to fit the solution. We have a little bit of a disconnect right now. We say, “look at how horrible this system is,” which is true. And when people see images of factory farming, they are disgusted. For some reason, the natural solution people come to is to switch to “humane” ways of farming, to eliminate some of that suffering. Animal rights groups aren’t promoting “humane eggs”, milk, or happy meat, but people come to that conclusion because we are using this graphic imagery of factory farms specifically to assert our position.
On some level, it makes sense that we do this. We live in a digital culture and visuals are the main commodity of our movement. It’s a currency that works. When people see animal suffering and industrialized cruelty, it works to our advantage in terms of animal welfare. One of the things I’ve noticed when talking to people about vegetarianism is that they will agree with you up to a point. Nobody wants to see animal suffering, but they have been conditioned to think that animals are not as important as humans and that we are entitled to use them. People do not even like to look at themselves as animals. The separation from our own animality is what we should really try to get past with our messaging.
So are graphic images only effective at promoting animal welfare? What are your thoughts of the use of this imagery overall?
I don’t have the research that groups such as Vegan Outreach, Mercy For Animals, and The Humane League do; they probably know exactly what pictures to put on the fronts of leaflets in order to get people to take them and what images to put throughout the leaflets, etc. Instead of asking what is the most effective way to have an immediate response, I focus on questions like “What visuals are appropriate to the message to promote the kind of thinking we need?”. I suggest that a variety of images are necessary, both positive/negative, and happy/sad. I think an image can be very poignant and very sad without being graphic in the sense of violent or bloody. One that comes to mind is the image on the cover of Matthew Scully’s Dominion. It’s an image of one sheep with her legs tied together and she’s just sitting on the ground. Although it isn’t graphic, it is still very sad and acts as a representation of our domination and control over someone else and how vulnerable they are. I think you can find ways that you can touch people with an image without it having to be grotesque. And I think there are people in our movement that definitely understand this. For example, Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball are very practical in knowing where to draw the line in terms of showing a visual that will be very emotionally provocative but won’t be so gross that people will turn away. There are plenty of factory farming images that don’t show blood but show the sadness and how pathetic the situation is.
Another poignant image that comes to mind would be a fish gasping, unable to breathe outside of water. In my book, I emphasize the importance of including sea animals in our discussion more than we currently do and suggest that more groups get on board with this. We need to include all animals in our messaging, not just the most charismatic ones or the ones people most relate to. It’s difficult because people tend to be more concerned about land animals, especially mammals. But the AR movement is concerned with saving lives. Pragmatically, the last thing we want is for people to eat more small animals. We need to focus on the message that all animal lives matter.
Right. I think we’ve already seen that society thinks animal lives do matter, but only some animals. For example, companion animals seem to be the most cared for, and have even been afforded certain rights legally. Why do we have laws against abusing some animals, while at the same time laws promoting even worse treatment against farmed animals?
I think it’s our job to show these moral inconsistencies in our justice system. Often, AR campaigns use the comparison “why are you petting your dog and eating this pig?” and I think that those comparative messages have value. If you like these animals and view them as someone, and you know that these other animals have similar capabilities and personalities, why are they treated differently?
It’s just amazing how we can compartmentalize different animals. Melanie Joy speaks to this pretty well in her book about carnism. It doesn’t make sense, why we treat dogs differently than cows. I think it’s useful to bring up that cognitive dissonance in our messaging and make people uncomfortable with the choices they make. Hopefully in time, the movement will progress and the media will allow these things to be opened up for debate.
I really like how you use the term “farmed” animals as opposed to “farm animals.” Could you explain the idea behind this, as well as why it is important to be very specific and intentional about the words we use in our rhetoric and messaging?
People throughout the years have focused on this in the movement. I do it because I am trying to put a verb in there. Instead of “farm” being an adjective to describe the animal, as if they are inherently designed to be on a farm or are supposed to be my food, using a verb brings the oppressor back into the picture. It reminds us that we are choosing to farm someone and it is not necessarily who they are and it is not their choice.
I promote this idea across the board. I recently co-authored a website which tries to get media producers to have respectful representations of animals in media. We talk about these same things. For example, journalists would be more accurate in saying “a cow used in the farming industry” than in saying “dairy cow”.
This reminds me of the concept of the “absent referent” from feminist studies. There’s definitely some value in showing the intersectionality of different social justice movements. How does this play into how we communicate with others about animal rights? Do you think it’s beneficial to draw these comparisons?
I think that this intersectionality should play a role in our communications, but we need to be really careful as to how we approach these comparisons, so as not to offend people right off. We want them to think about the deeper comparisons. I like to start off by defining myself as an animal in a positive sense or by using the terms human and nonhuman animals so that it’s not being used pejoratively. I think it’s useful sometimes to use the term ‘enslavement’ when talking about nonhuman animals. We don’t necessarily need to draw the comparison to human slavery, but just use the term enslavement to describe farming. That alone is provocative enough, and then people can potentially make their own comparisons to human enslavement.
We don’t always need to compare the oppression in visual format, because it may turn people off right away, like, for example, drawing the comparison by using images of the Holocaust and images of factory farms. Although I think it is a fair comparison to make, I don’t know that it works that well at this point. People are not as accustomed to the comparison. Can we find a way we can approach it without offending?1 I think we can talk about it in a more positive sense and make connections that way and leave the off-putting visuals out. One example I use in my book is a FARM campaign where they put humans in the place of farmed animals. They weren’t showing humans who were actually exploited at some point in history. But rather, they just presented the question “What if it were us in that position?” That was interesting, because that is asking us to think of this from a human rights standpoint, and it still applies to animal rights. There are a lot of creative ways we can go about it. I’ve heard Ingrid Newkirk give talks where she very eloquently explains the connection of oppression and injustice between certain humans and nonhumans. But then PETA puts out a campaign and it gets a lot of negative press. I think the visual element or lack of context and compassionate framing causes this. Sensitive topics require a more serious communication venue to discuss them. A billboard or bumper sticker is not the best venue to give appropriate context.
Messages like “Celebrate civil rights. Eat civil foods.” makes a connection, but in a positive sense. “Flesh, eggs and dairy are oppressing and depressing” is another example but using negative associations. In terms of the feminist intersection, I give an example in my book that says “Eggs and dairy are not feminist foods.” That’s provocative in and of itself. I employed this slogan around 2007 while at the University of Oregon when I worked on an AR campaign for Mother’s Day that was meant to draw attention to the mother hens and mother cows. We gave out soy ice cream sandwiches so that the students could try the dairy alternative and supplied Mother’s Day cards that showed these animals as mothers. We wanted to showcase motherhood across all different species, and in a positive light. In contrast, we also had literature about the farming process. It’s hard to come up with messaging for a soundbite that enables people to understand how female nonhuman animals are exploited for their reproductive qualities. We can make those ‘harsh’ reality connections, but it takes some time. “Meat is Murder” works well on a bumper sticker and people get it, but when trying to explain why the egg and the dairy industry are not feminist, it takes a little more time to convey that message.
ACE is currently working on a social movements research project, in part to find opportunities within the animal rights movement. Did you come across any particular similarities or big takeaways in your research on social movements?
I looked a lot at the abolitionist movement and women’s rights movement. Abolition of slavery makes sense because [animal-agribusiness] is another type of slavery. But sometimes, what you learn from other movements is an overall strategic takeaway, no matter the movement. Actually, I have a quote here from my book (Framing Farming):
“If the animal rights organizations are to follow in the footsteps of now celebrated human rights leaders, they need to use messages that maintain ideological authenticity by unabashedly asking for rights for all animals based on a consistent and fair application of the principles of justice, freedom and life that resonate within American culture.”
That was one of the lessons I took away from the different approaches in the early stages of the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. I think the animal rights movement is currently in its early stages, and it’s important to look at the comparisons in that way. The use of authentic messaging, the language of the justice system, and the cultural story is paramount. The abolitionist as well as civil rights movements did this very well. They weren’t threatening the notion of America; they were just asking to extend these principles to them as well.
This is a very important consideration: how authentic can you be in asking for these changes without being so threatening to the fiber of society that they are scared of it.
What are a few campaigns that come to mind in terms of authentic communication? What are some of the positive and/or negative aspects of their messages?
Farm Sanctuary has a new campaign with the phrase “Someone, not something” that focuses on animal cognition studies to prove to people that these animals are someone and they have feelings and thoughts. Although we already know this, some people need the science to verify this, and this campaign works well for that.
Farm Sanctuary, PETA, and a few others organizations have similar campaigns where there is an image of an individual animal who is talking to the audience, saying something like “I want to live” or “I am not a nugget.” This affirms who the animal is and asks us to think of them in a different way, as their own person, not just here for our use.
Another example, if I remember correctly, is from an old FARM campaign. They had a poster with an image of a cow’s throat being slit in the slaughter process with the message “It’s a filthy business. They couldn’t do it without you.” This image could be from any farm: grass-fed, free-range, or a CAFO, which overcomes the “happy meat” myth. This message reminds us that agribusiness is only in business because we (society) are supporting them.
Do you have any other thoughts or ideas for activists working in communications/campaigning roles?
I think that focusing on the individual animal is important. For example, images where we can see the animal and their reactions to their situation, or photos of animals looking right at the viewer. Also, I think it’s useful to draw focus to the actual killing or death of an animal. This gets to the heart of what we are taking from them: their life. We need to ensure our message communicates that there is death involved throughout the industry, including the egg and dairy industry.
As part of our visual rhetorical strategy, we could use images of species that we currently eat, but not always pictures of them in farms. Rather, the images would be of these animals in the wild. While we don’t technically have wild ancestors for every type of animal we currently farm, images of big horned sheep, wild turkeys, feral hogs, fish, pheasants, etc. could work. These images convey that these animals can (and do) live independently, and removes them from the frame of domestication. This type of imagery wouldn’t work alone, but rather as a supplement to other forms of imagery in our communications.
Before we wrap up, could you offer some resources that you recommend to those interested in learning more about communications strategies?
Sure, I actually have a list of resources on my website.
A side note from Carrie: I don’t want to give the impression that we always must be so polite. I have a published paper where I show how sometimes offending mainstream values and dominant ideologies is ethical for social movements in order to challenge prejudices.
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