By Nick Cooney
December 11, 2012
Regardless of your political affiliation, there’s a lot to learn from the 2012 presidential election – a lot to learn about effective vegan advocacy.
No, neither candidate uttered the word “vegan,” or even addressed the issue of factory farming on the campaign trail. But, as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times reported in the weeks following the election, the political game has shifted permanently as a result of the Obama campaign’s successful use of data analysis and social psychology to win over swing voters in battleground states.
Here’s what it looked like on the ground. First, a team of 50 “data nerds” spent months compiling more than 80 pieces of information about individual voters in swing states – everything from age to household income to voting history to magazines they subscribe to. Using that data, a mathematical model was created to predict how likely any individual voter was to vote for Obama. Special efforts were then made to target hundreds of thousands of voters who, according to the model, were on the fence but who could be persuaded to vote for Obama.
Meanwhile, a team of behavioral scientists was advising the campaign’s get-out-the-vote department on the finer points of persuasion. Canvassers used subtle tactics such as getting likely Democratic voters to sign a written commitment to vote or informing them that most of their neighbors vote – tactics that increased people’s likelihood of showing up at the polls on election day. The rest, as they say, is history. Swing state after swing state, as well as the general election, went to Obama.
Just what does this mean for the future of veg advocacy? We can ignore these results – or, we can steal a page from the Obama campaign’s playbook and begin making data-driven decisions in our veg advocacy work. To be more specific, we can look to data to figure out who we should focus our veg advocacy efforts on, and how we can best reach them.
With only limited time and money, it makes sense to target our veg advocacy towards those we are most likely to persuade. For example, because young people are more likely to go vegetarian than other age groups, it makes sense to target them. Vegan Outreach focuses most of their leafleting outreach on college campuses for that very reason. Passing out 1,000 leaflets on a college campus is likely to create far more vegetarians and meat-reducers than passing out the same number of leaflets on a city street.
Another benefit of focusing on young people is that when they go vegetarian, they really go vegetarian. A 2009 study from Europe – but likely applicable to the United States – revealed that young people who go vegetarian are much more likely to follow an actual vegetarian diet, free of chicken and fish, than older individuals who say they have become vegetarian.
Similarly, women are more likely to go vegetarian than men. In the United States and Europe, both female vegetarians and female meat-reducers outnumber their male counterparts by a ration of 2:1. Some recent testing by The Humane League found that online vegetarian advertisements shown only to women were about three times more effective than ads shown to men and women equally. Therefore, it makes sense to focus our veg advocacy on women (especially young women) as much as possible.
Apart from age and gender, there are, no doubt, other demographic groups who are more likely to go vegetarian. Art students, fans of punk and indie music, Mac users, and people with tattoos are a few examples. The more we target our veg outreach efforts towards those groups, the more animals we will save.
How do we become more effective in persuading individuals to make a change? Thankfully, the very research the Obama campaign relied on is available for anyone to read. Change Of Heart, available in the Farm Sanctuary store, discusses that research and how animal advocates can apply it to their work. Classics in the field of persuasion science, such as Robert Cialdini’s Influence, may also be of interest.
Even beyond the specifics of how and why, perhaps the most basic lessons veg advocates can take from the presidential election is that it pays to understand our audience. It pays big time. And understanding our audience does not mean making assumptions about what will motivate them. It doesn’t mean guessing which groups are most likely to care. Understanding our audience means looking at the data and then making data-based decisions. If it can shift the tide in a multibillion dollar election campaign, then it can certainly shift the tide towards a more compassionate world as well.
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