Murphy: Rejecting the Vegan Message

In politics, the rule of thumb has long been that negative campaigning generates traction. Conventional wisdom suggests that the more a candidate smears his or her opponent, the greater the impact on the voters.

But in marketing consumer products, ad agencies have traditionally gone in the other direction: Sell the benefits of your product, create “good feelings” about the brand and avoid spending precious share of mind on trying to trash the competition.

That’s changed in recent years, perhaps in tandem with the coarsening of political speech. With many of the “alternative” categories competing with conventional food products, the approach is not to promote the benefits of organic or vegetarian, but rather spend time and money attacking mainstream producers, processors and marketers.

When the upstarts aren’t collecting serious windfalls by selling out to the very companies they profess to loathe, that is.

A great example of those dynamics is taking place overseas, specifically in Ireland. As a report in The Irish Times detailed, a vegan activist group was recently refused permission to run attack ads aimed at that country’s dairy industry.

The ads in question were developed by a group called Go Vegan World and were to appear as posters on Dublin Bus vehicles and in stations operated by Irish Rail. However, Exterion Media, the contractor responsible for selling ad space on buses and in train stations, deemed the ads to be “emotive and provocative” and likely to draw complaints, according to the newspaper story.

The Go Vegan World campaign is familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to the anti-industry activists in this country. The approach is transparent: Attack animal agriculture, and along with it the use of animals in medical research.

In December, Go Vegan started an outdoor ad campaign with billboards and bus stop posters across Ireland targeting the “horrors” of eating turkeys and pigs, drinking milk and using mice in research. At the Granard farmers market in County Longford, for example, a poster featured the photo of a calf with the caption, “They trust us — we take them from their mothers and butcher them.” The ad included the hashtags #DitchDairy and #FactNotFad.

And that was one of the ads that wasn’t rejected.

The ads that were rejected by Exterion Media showed cows and calves with the following statements: “Humane milk is a myth — don’t buy it,” and “Dairy takes babies from their mothers.”

A Positive Approach
Now, you tell me what’s the big difference between “We take them from their mothers and butcher them” and “Dairy takes babies from their mothers.” Nevertheless, the former statement was apparently fine, while the latter was deemed to be “emotive and provocative.”

Go Vegan World officials denied any connection, but the group’s ads launched just weeks after Ireland’s National Dairy Council began a $2.3 million campaign to promote cow’s milk as “plant-based,” on the basis that cows eat grass, and as The Irish Times story noted, “disparaging vegan alternatives such as soy and almond milk.”

Which, as previously noted, isn’t always the best approach to building brand loyalty and stoking those warm, fuzzy feelings about one’s product line.

The Times reported that the NDC ads that ran on billboards, on Dublin busses and at train stations prompted more than 100 complaints to Ireland’s Advertising Standards Authority.

Gee, I wonder who might have prompted ordinary citizens to lodge dozens of formal complaints with a government agency responsible for monitoring advertising ethics? The ethics of advertising isn’t an issue most people care enough about to spend time and energy filing protests.

Of course, the go-to strategy for veganistas is demonizing all activities involving animals. Consider the comments of Sandra Higgins, Go Vegan World’s campaign director and the founder of the Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary Ireland, as posted on the group’s website:

“We imagine that non-human lives hardly matter at all. We live as though our difference from other species entitles us to use them and that they exist for our benefit. This view is not only inaccurate, it is unethical. Nobody wants … their children to be the property of someone else, so anybody who is not vegan is participating in violence that directly contradicts the values that we all claim to have.”

How can you refute that statement?

Answer: You don’t.

Instead, the industry needs to stay focused on promoting animal well-being and educating consumers about sustainable food production, environmental stewardship and the importance of food security and agricultural sustainability.

The demographic that buys into the no-animals-never-ever is but a thin slice of the adult population, about the same percentage of voters who pull the lever for the Green Party in national elections here in The States. Those born-again veggies aren’t going to be persuaded that the philosophy of veganism has serious problems.

But taking the low road isn’t the most productive pathway toward building a positive connection with the business of raising livestock and producing animal foods.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.