How Effective Is Cowspiracy?
Advocates employ many different messages to encourage meat reduction, including the “big three”— ending animal suffering, supporting human health, and protecting the environment. Researchers have found that both animal welfare and human health campaigns are more effective at changing people’s meat-eating habits compared to those focused on the environment. Environmental campaigns, however, are usually text-based, such as written articles.
Popular documentaries may be a more effective tool to encourage positive environmental behavior change. An example is Al Gore’s film about global warming called “An Inconvenient Truth,” which raised awareness of the issue and helped increase the sales of voluntary carbon offsets. Can documentaries do the same for meat reduction, which many climate scientists recognize as a necessary step toward mitigating climate change?
This idea was put to the test with the Netflix documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.” The film teaches its audience about the devastating effects animal agriculture has on the earth, including its contribution to climate change, water depletion, deforestation, species extinction, and ocean dead zones. It emphasizes the industry’s power and influence to hide these effects from consumers to keep them uninformed.
In this study, researchers used a theory called the Integrated Change Model to explain how Cowspiracy would impact daily meat-eaters aged 19-32. This model theorizes that our behaviors are determined by our intentions and motivations, which are affected by our awareness and knowledge of a given issue. In other words, increasing knowledge is the first step toward changing behavior. Participants were randomly assigned to view either Cowspiracy or a “control” documentary, Planet Earth. Both before and after viewing the documentary, they filled out a survey that measured their knowledge about the environmental harms of meat, their attitudes toward meat reduction, and their future meat-eating intentions.
Unlike those who watched Planet Earth, participants who viewed Cowspiracy showed significant changes in their knowledge, attitudes, and intentions afterward. Specifically, they became more aware of the environmental impact of meat, they indicated more favorable attitudes toward meat reduction, and they showed a stronger intention to reduce their meat intake. Attitude changes were also correlated with age, as younger adults showed more positive attitudes toward reduction. However, these changes didn’t fit within the Integrated Change Model that the authors tested. For example, while Cowspiracy increased participants’ knowledge, the authors found that knowledge didn’t significantly predict attitudes toward meat reduction. Stated differently, the participants’ reported attitude changes were likely a result of other factors.
It’s important to remember that attitudes and intentions don’t automatically lead to behavior change. However, documentaries (and the media in general) remain a strong avenue for change — check out this Faunalytics study, which found that 37% of animal advocates got their start in the movement after being exposed to some form of media! Animal advocates can be optimistic about the promising potential of using arts and entertainment to reach the public. Audio-visual learning experiences are here to stay, especially with the younger generation that’s more likely to subscribe to Netflix and similar platforms.