Happy Cows, Tasty Milk?: Swedish Dairy Farm Marketing
One of the ways that the Swedish dairy industry promotes itself is through public events. Pasture releases – when dairy cows are released from their winter barns in the spring – have become public spectacles. The dairy industry, which is a pillar of Swedish agriculture, welcomes the enthusiasm with which the public has taken to these releases, especially given an overall decline in milk sales within Sweden. However, as this study notes, the dairy industry presents an image of itself that is not entirely accurate. They base this conclusion on their observations of, and brief interviews at, several pasture releases and open farm events from 2012 to 2014. In addition, more structured interviews were done with the farmers at each event, as well as with various dairy industry representatives, in the process of this study.
The researchers found that two main types of language were used during these events. The first is cold and clinical — referring to cows as “milk machines” and other impersonal terms which serves to minimize the animals’ capacity for suffering. It implies that cows cannot be mistreated, any more than a car or computer could. The other form of language is somewhat opposite: anthropomorphizing. By projecting positive human emotions and thoughts onto a cow, it’s easy to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. It allows people to feel as if they are connecting with cows, but in reality they are connecting with an idealized image of a cow and are profoundly disconnected from the cow’s reality.
The dairy industry claims that these events are educational, but in truth, they are misleading. Nowhere did the researchers witness farmers describing the process of calf separation, nor did any of them mention what happens when cows stop being able to produce milk (they are killed). No ethical or environmental issues of any kind were brought up, despite one industry representative’s claim that the events are “an occasion where children can learn […] to feel responsibility for nature and for the animals.” The dairy industry hopes to survive a general trend towards ethical consumption by masking the unethical parts of its business and presenting a narrative that assuages customers’ concerns without actually addressing them.
Animal advocates, of course, need to be aware of and fight against this kind of deception. Animal agriculture has invested heavily in PR, and it works: “pasture raised,” “cage-free,” “free range,” and other marketing buzzwords have managed to convince many people that consuming animal products is not inherently unethical, and can be perfectly acceptable if done in the correct way. However, these terms always leave out unfortunate truths: every animal in the industry is being exploited and abused. A false presentation of transparency leads customers to avoid digging too deep, assuaged that their choices align with their morals. These open farm and pasture release events are another example of marketing at work, and animal advocates should concentrate on countering these narratives and images presented by the industry.