You Are Not Your Audience

Tobias Leenaert,  one of the founders of the Belgian organization Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, has a really insightful saying: You Are Not Your Audience (YANYA). This was one of my greatest failings in my early years of advocacy – I chose my message based on what sounded good to me, rather than what would have the biggest impact on non-vegetarians. Nobel laureate Herb Simon makes the important point that took me years to understand: People don’t make optimal choices. Rather, we make choices that are good enough. Consider this chart:

Where the Y-axis is any negative measure – pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, saturated fat, etc. If they care at all about the measure, the vast majority of people would look at this chart and say, “I should give up A.” And a few might say, “I should give up A, B, and C.” Basically no one will say, “I should only consume I.” But put labels on the chart:


And now vegans see something different: a case for veganism. It will, of course, be true – a vegan will generally use less water, or cause less pollution / global warming, or consume less saturated fat. The labels don’t change anything, however – non-vegan people are still going to see beef as bad, or beef, pork, and veal as bad. As you’ve probably noticed in your day-to-day lives, people substitute chicken (and sometimes chicken and fish) for red meat. This is backed up by research: in the largest recent study, those who consumed the lowest amount of red meat ate fifty percent more chicken than those who consumed the most red meat (Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 26(1), October 18, 2012). Given that it takes over 200 chickens to provide the same number of meals as one steer, this causes a lot more deaths.


Given that chickens are so intensively raised, anything that encourages a move from red meat to chicken causes more suffering.


I bring this up because I so often see advocates hop on every story that sounds anti-meat, regardless of how it will actually affect animals in the real world. We can’t just repeat messages that feel like they justify our personal veganism. Rather, we have to advocate such that fewer animals will suffer.

Chanted Morals or Deep-Fried Tofu?

I received this question regarding Paul Shapiro’s Introduction to The Accidental Activist:

I found a particular passage here and would like your thoughts:
“In many ways, it boils down to this question: Do we want a social club, or do we want a social movement? If we want a social movement, we need to open our arms and have a big tent.”
This is interesting. I agree with you on inclusivity, certainly. But I’m not sure why we should be a movement “that welcomes people where they are, applauds them for taking the steps they’ve taken.” While I agree gains come from compromise, I can’t think of a single successful social movement that has taken this incremental, consumer-based approach. Can you? If not, why do you believe its the best way to effect change rather than following the successful movements of the past that focused their efforts on strong messages and systematic, moral change?

There are a number of things we can learn from earlier social justice movements, as discussed in Welfare and Liberation. But it is important to understand the significant differences between our work and previous campaigns.

In the end, we all want a world where animals are not exploited, but rather respected as individuals. Animal liberation, for short. The vast, vast majority of cruelty to animals comes from animal agriculture.

From Animal Charity Evaluators.

To a first approximation, animal liberation would be achieved when everyone stops eating animals. This won’t happen through societal-level changes: no law or amendment will abolish killing animals for food as long as the majority of those in power eat animals. Therefore, animal liberation will necessarily happen individual by individual; laws will follow behavior change, rather than create it.

The question then is: What is the fastest way to get people to stop eating animals?

Lessons from the Relevant Data

Since the determining factor is individuals making different choices, the relevant information comes from psychology, sociology, marketing, and economics, rather than politics or war. Why people do or don’t make cruelty-free choices is the central question, not how slavery was ended or how women won the vote. (And the animals are in deep trouble if it is going to take a civil war for animal liberation to occur.)

If we want to bring about animal liberation, we need to look at how and why people who currently aren’t eating animals got to that place, as well as understanding why other people don’t currently make compassionate choices.

Over the past quarter century, I’ve personally interacted with thousands of vegetarians, and heard from tens of thousands of others. Very, very few went right from a standard American diet to vegan upon being told, “Go vegan!” I know a handful who went vegan overnight and maintained that change. But I know many more who instantly went vegan and are no longer even vegetarian.

This isn’t a negligible problem. Some of the failed vegans I know were close friends. One was a founding Board member of a major vegan group; he now isn’t even close to vegetarian. He was driven away because of the self-righteousness of many vegans: “I grow weary of the term ‘vegan.’ It seems to become just a label for moral superiority.”

(Unfortunately, that is not an uncommon reaction. Obviously not all vegans are self-righteous, but veganism often attracts the self-righteous. And they tend to be loud.)

On the other hand, the people who have made the biggest difference for the animals  with their choices, their example, and their advocacy  are almost all individuals who have evolved incrementally over time. The lesson is clear: instead of insisting on the last step, we should celebrate every step anyone takes that helps animals.

We’re Already on the Same Page

One unique aspect of our work for animal liberation is that we actually don’t need to change people’s ethics, unlike the abolitionist or suffrage movements. The vast majority of people already oppose cruelty to animals. But we know, from everyday experience and through decades of research, that the vast majority of people simply don’t make decisions based on ethics. They make decisions based on habit, convenience, social norms. To quote Cleveland Amory, we have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to something we want to eat.

Luckily, there is a great deal of psychological and sociological research into people’s choices. Specifically: how and why they change habits when they do, as well as why they don’t, even when they say they want to. This research, as it applies to helping animals, is discussed in The Animal Activist’s Handbook, Change of Heart, and in some of the essays in The Accidental Activist. (And new relevant articles are linked to on this blog.)

In short, we have four facts regarding the majority of the population (the people we need to reach):

  1. People already share our moral revulsion at cruelty to animals.
  2. People rarely act based on their ethics if it conflicts with habit and the norms of their friends and family.
  3. People who make real change and maintain that change do so incrementally.
  4. Animal liberation must necessarily be achieved from the ground up, person by person.

Given these facts, the movement for animal liberation is inherently an incremental, consumer-based campaign. And if we truly want to do our best for the animals, we must understand and work with the psychology of consumer choices.

For this reason, everyone is a potential ally. With allies, we work constructively. Together, we will continue to shift the consumer landscape such that it is easy for everyone to act on their ethics.

We know how to do this: through our person-to-person outreach, advocates drive increasing demand for cruelty-free options. This in turn improves the quality and availability of supply, which allows more people to get on board. Thus, we create the virtuous feedback loop that will bring about animal liberation.

As I’ve pointed out before, the vegan future is here, it is just unevenly distributed. Almost every vegan has heard, “If all vegan food was this good, I’d eat vegan all the time!” Or, as “a carnivore all the way” said about a vegan restaurant:

Wish they were in my neighborhood, ‘cause I’d be one happy fat vegan cat eating some deep fried tofu with their crazy good tartar sauce. Not kidding.

We will do this. Not kidding.

See also, One Possible Future


Bowling without Blindfolds: How We Can Knock Down the Most Animal Suffering

By Ben Davidow and Nick Cooney 

February 27, 2013

Dinner PlatesImagine you’re standing in a dining room before a massive table set with 100 plates. Spread on the plates are all the chickens, cows, and pigs an average American consumes in one year. Americans eat a lot of meat, so the plates are piled high with animal flesh.

If you tally up the plates, you’ll find that 44 plates contain chickens, 30 contain cows, and 26 contain pigs. Given this table, it makes sense that our movement places roughly equal focus and resources on cows, chickens, and pigs. Right?

Wrong. This table represents the weight of the meat Americans eat, but it doesn’t reflect the number of animals they eat.

In place of the table, picture all the actual, live animals that were farmed and slaughtered to produce that meat. Looking at this collection of animals, you notice something strange: there’s a large mass of chickens and only the occasional cow or pig dotting the landscape. Where are all the pigs? Where are all the cows?

Because chickens are so much smaller than cows and pigs, many more of them must be slaughtered to produce the same amount of meat. To get the same amount of meat that can be obtained from a single cow (or four pigs), more than 200 chickens must be killed. That’s why, despite the fact that people eat almost as much pork and beef as they do chicken, they eat many, many more chickens than they do cows or pigs.

Kiev of Farm Sanctuary

For farm animal activists, what truly matters is not the amount of meat that is consumed but the number of animals that are harmed and the amount of suffering caused. Our movement’s outreach efforts, however, are based largely on the illusory dinner table: we tend to direct our resources according to how often animals are consumed, not how many are consumed.

And it’s not only that a larger number of chickens are killed. Chickens also endure more days of suffering than any other farm animal, other than some farm-raised fish. We get this amount by multiplying the number of animals that are eaten by how long each one lives and suffers on a factory farm. Chickens also suffer particularly cruel treatment on factory farms.

When we carry out vegetarian outreach without considering the relative suffering caused by different animal foods, we are bowling with blindfolds: we can’t know where to aim, and our success will be limited. It’s time to remove the blindfolds and knock down as much animal cruelty as we can.

Clementine of Farm Sanctuary

If we see farm animals as individuals, and we want as many individuals as possible to be protected from cruelty, then we should focus first on getting the public to give up eating chickens. Having that focus will enable us to save more lives and spare more suffering.

Consider, for example, that getting someone simply to cut their chicken consumption in half spares 14 animals per year a lifetime of misery. If someone were to give up eating chickens entirely they would spare about 28 animals per year from a lifetime of misery.

At the very least, our outreach efforts should place greater focus on chickens. We should tell people that the first and most important thing they can do to help farm animals is to cut out or cut back on eating chickens.


Ben Davidow is the author of the forthcoming e-book Thinking Outside the Cage: Leading Farm Animal Advocates on How to Have a Meaningful Impact, in which a modified version of this essay will appear.

Nick Cooney is the Compassionate Communities Campaign manager at Farm Sanctuary.


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dinner plate photo by Dave Le (CC: AB-NY-ND); hen photos by Farm Sanctuary

Compassionate Selling — Feel, Felt, Found

Special Guest Blog By Jaime T. Surenkamp

January 30, 2013

Welcome to February, the season of love and of listening to your heart!

Listening to our hearts can lead us in beautiful directions, but leading with our hearts when it comes to activism is not always the best way to effect change. Selling, on the other hand, is all about persuading or influencing an individual to change or take a course of action. And, that’s our goal — to create change — so we’re all going to take a mini crash course in sales!

Pig snoutAs compassionate salespeople, we should see every interaction as an opportunity to sell someone on a healthier lifestyle and new way of looking at animals. Our “product” is a lifestyle of compassionate choices that lead to better health, a better planet, and a better life for all animals.

If you are new to sales, I’d like to introduce you to a long-standing technique — the Feel, Felt, Found approach. This sales approach can be highly effective in our conversations about animal rights and veganism.

As illustrated in Nick Cooney’s book Change of Heart, studies show that people are more likely to make a change when they empathize with others who have experienced a similar change or challenge.

The Feel, Felt, Found approach opens the door for that empathy.

ListeningFirst, become the listener. As the listener, you validate how the person feels, and you hear their objections or concerns.

Second, you assure them that they are not the only person to have felt this way. Many others have faced similar same challenges, so they are not alone in their thoughts. This is a powerful approach. Again, as illustrated in Nick’s book, people statistically are more likely to make a change based on their knowledge of what others are doing. Validating that someone is not alone in his or her concerns is comforting and persuasive in your communication.

Third, alleviate their fears by letting them know what you and others have found.

Here’s an example. A common response to the idea of becoming vegan is, “I could never give up cheese. I love cheese.” Here is the Feel, Felt, Found response:

I definitely understand how you feel. I felt that way, too. I was a big cheese and Greek yogurt fan myself. Lots of other people have felt that way too it’s probably the number one concern when people consider adopting a vegan diet. What I found is that I don’t really miss cheese at all. And these days, there are so many good plant-based cheese options that it’s really easy to have a cheese pizza or cheesy lasagna that’s delicious. 

I always try to express excitement about my experience as a vegan. This is actually pretty easy because I have found so many things to be excited about. But I digress.

Use the “found” comment as an opportunity to key into whatever you know about the person you are talking to. If they are analytical types, your “found” statement might sound something like this:

Cow in storm

What many people have found is that you lose your craving for dairy altogether because dairy is addictive. Dairy has a protein called casein, which, when broken down in digestion, can act like an opiate, meaning it has a calming effect. This is helpful for a baby calf, for example, because it creates a calming effect and promotes bonding with his mother. Mother Nature is smart: She knows that a calf needs to nurse to grow, so this addictive effect will keep the calf coming back for more. But humans drinking cows’ milk can feel that same calming, addictive effect. Once you’ve removed dairy from your diet, you remove the addiction. Not only will you not crave cheese, milk, or any other dairy, but I found that my skin got clearer and my energy level increased.

Use your best judgment on how to frame the conversation, but you get the drift.

Whatever response you choose, always give the person you are talking with an opportunity to digest what you’ve said and to respond with their thoughts. This is another key ingredient to being a good salesperson — remember when to be quiet and try to talk less, not more, than the person you are speaking with.

Practice the Feel, Felt, Found approach in other aspects of your life so that it becomes natural in your vocabulary. This approach is more than a sales technique; it’s also a useful framework for many interactions in life. When we are discussing being vegan, our non-vegan friends or family can feel threatened or judged, and that can result in combative discussions. By using the Feel, Felt, Found approach, you stay grounded in the conversation and can maintain a non-confrontational exchange of thoughts.

And, on that topic, we shouldn’t ever judge others. We all have non-vegan friends and family who are kind, caring, and loving. It’s important to understand that each of us is on his or her own journey. Not everyone you speak with will be receptive to you, and not everyone you talk with will change. That is not our choice to make. However, being a compassionate advocate, providing information when engaged with someone, and offering help without judgment is one of the best things we can do to be a voice for animals.

So, happy compassionate selling!

Jaime T. Surenkamp is the founder of VeniceBeachVegan and is a compassionate, passionate advocate for animals.


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photo credit 1: cloud_nine via photopin cc ; photo credit 2 : Bindaas Madhavi via photopin cc ; photo credit 3: ‘J’ via photopin cc 

I’m going meat-free…How about you?

By Nick Cooney

April 3, 2012

“How I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say…You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs.”

If you’re familiar with the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration,” you can thank Frank Luntz. You can also thank him for the powerful quote above.

Luntz is a Republican Party consultant who conducts polling to see which words and phrases resonate with the public. Luntz popularized the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration” after polling showed they were more effective in promoting Republican ideals than the original terms “estate tax” and “oil drilling.”

Whether or not you agree with Luntz’s politics, his point rings true: language matters. When making the case for vegan eating, the words we use matter too. Some phrases appeal to meat eaters, and some phrases will be more likely to turn them off.

Case in point: a study by British trade magazine The Grocer found that the public was more likely to embrace vegetarian meat products when the products were labeled “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian.” Over the past four years an increasing number of British supermarkets and vegetarian meat producers have switched labels from “vegetarian” to “meat-free,” and as a result they are seeing increased sales among meat-eaters.

On this side of the Atlantic, vegetarian meat producers are catching on. Pick up a bag of Gardein vegetarian meat, and you’ll see the label “I’m meat-free!” Even Lightlife is catching on, labeling their products “meat-free” or noting they are packed with “veggie protein.” Virtually none of their products still carry a prominent “vegetarian” label.

Why does “meat-free” seem to go over better than “vegetarian” with the general public? Industry experts think the term “vegetarian” has negative connotations for many people. Maybe some have had negative experiences with vegetarians. Perhaps, due to guilt, social norms, or other reasons, they simply look down on all things “vegetarian.” For those over 30 years old, the term might conjure up memories of a flavorless tofu burger they tried back in college.

(It’s possible that for those who are 21 and under, “vegetarian” does not have as negative a connotation. Higher percentages of those age groups consider themselves vegetarian, and they have grown up with a much tastier selection of vegetarian products.)

Using the word “vegetarian” also raises the sticky issue of self-identity. The public may see vegetarians as a distinct group of people quite different from the average American. Ditto for vegans. That’s why, when asked about my diet, I don’t say “I am a vegan” or “I am a vegetarian.” I say, “I don’t eat meat.”  I don’t want the people I’m speaking with to lump me into a box, as if who I am is determined by what I eat. More importantly, I don’t want them to think they need to take on a new identity – joining me in the box – in order to cut cruelty out of their diets.

For a funny parallel example, consider the following. Which of these statements sounds more palatable to you? “You should become a Canadian,” or “You should move to Canada.” The first statement focuses on identity, while the second focuses on action. The second statement is probably more palatable to most Americans.

The bottom line?

When we leave issues of self-identity off the table, we make it easier for our audience to hear our message.

When we use words that don’t have negative connotations in the minds of our audience, our audience will be more likely to listen.

At times “meat-free” can sound a bit awkward when you try to work it into conversation. But after learning what the research has to say on this issue, I’m planning to use “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian” whenever possible.

In other words, I’m going meat-free. How about you?


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