The Challenges Of Researching Animal Advocacy Protests
Protests in the animal advocacy movement vary in their tactics—they can include sit-ins, marches, traffic blockades, banner drops, slaughterhouse ‘vigils’, demonstrations, grocery store disruptions, and much more, all of which can vary from just one individual protestor to thousands. Such examples highlight how protests differ in their levels of confrontation and disruptiveness (the extent to which they interfere with people’s everyday lives). And like any other form of advocacy, protests can have different goals, anywhere from specific demands for a company to drop a certain practice, to an overall demand for animal liberation. Nonetheless, the ability of protests to be adapted to various contexts is what makes them so difficult to research.
As far as we know, only two experiments to date have investigated the impact of animal rights protests, while other studies have looked at people’s perceptions of animal advocacy campaigns and activists in general. Based on this limited research, we know that 44% of people approve of protests as a tactic to create change, which was lower than the other tactics surveyed (e.g., using the media had 73% approval). Lower support for protests may be due to the general public’s tendency to view activists negatively (e.g., as militant or hostile) and to react negatively (e.g., feeling offended and disgusted) to campaigns that employ shocking visuals.
Yet, animal advocacy campaigns and protests can produce positive effects too. Some animal advocacy campaigns seem to be successful in reducing the public’s trust of animal-exploitative industries (versus changing individual consumer behavior), while increasing the credibility of animal protection organizations. Further, one experiment showed that peaceful rallies generate more public support and willingness to join the movement than more extreme protests (such as breaking and entering into an animal laboratory), at least in the context of anti-vivisection advocacy. But since this particular experiment only compared responses after different types of protests and didn’t include a “control condition” where no protest was shown, we don’t know for sure whether a peaceful rally actually had a positive impact on public support.
In our latest report, we found that protests had a negative impact on people’s behaviors (at worst) and were neutral (at best). Specifically, through our experiment, we found that disruptive protests increased self-reported animal product consumption in meat-eaters. We also found that disruptive and non-disruptive protests reduced petition-signing in meat-avoiders (i.e., vegetarians and reducetarians) in statistically significant ways compared to participants who didn’t see any advocacy. For these reasons, we recommended against the use of protests as an advocacy strategy to change individual behavior. That said, we do not claim that these recommendations are definitive. The results come from only two studies, of which one used self-reported data and the other relied upon exploratory analyses, meaning that they should be replicated by other researchers. There are also many forms of protest and desired outcomes that we did not include, such as influencing legislation, raising public awareness, getting media attention, or increasing community-building, to name a few.
Indeed, protests have anecdotally been successful as part of pressure campaigns targeting companies rather than individuals, where the goal is to get a company to drop a certain practice or product (such as fur, foie gras, and battery cages) or to interfere with a company’s activities (such as by shutting them down, getting other companies to cut ties with them, or getting them to fund better treatment for captive animals).
Similarly, protests have certainly been successful in gaining media attention. For example, a historical analysis from 1960-1995 found that animal protection groups that were known to use disruptive protests dominated the media coverage of animal rights protests in The New York Times. Furthermore, disruptive or extreme protests may help legitimize more moderate forms of advocacy, known as the radical flank effect. For instance, the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign used both extreme and less extreme tactics. Moderate SHAC organizers said in interviews that much of their success in getting businesses to cut ties with Huntingdon Life Sciences was due to those businesses’ fear of retaliation from the radical flank.
This all goes to show that it’s crucial for advocates to understand the contexts in which protests can be successful. We hope that our report will inspire other organizations to investigate the effectiveness of animal rights protests as we were unable to assess all possible outcomes within our data.
Borrowing Lessons From Other Movements
Given the lack of research looking at the impact of protests in an animal advocacy context, some organizations have looked at data or case studies from other movements (e.g., climate change or civil rights). For example, The Social Change Lab recently summarized the positive impact that protests have had in other social movements—on public awareness, support, and voting behavior. They concluded that protests can be more successful if they are:
- Non-violent and not extreme,
- Attended by many people,
- Popular with the public, and
- Well-organized, with clear governance.
With regard to the first point, while most animal advocacy protests are non-violent, how extreme they seem will depend on how disruptive they are to bystanders. Our own pilot testing found that the degree of disruptiveness or extremity of a protest varies from one protest to the next and from person to person. The perceived extremity of animal rights protests could also be influenced by ideological differences regarding animal welfare issues between advocates and the public. If people have never thought about animal welfare before, then even a simple demonstration could be viewed as extreme. As such, animal advocates should continue to protest non-violently and to keep in mind that extremity will be perceived differently depending on the bystander.
Regarding the second and third points, that successful protests must have many attendees and a cause that is popular with the public, estimates reveal that the median number of participants is seven for an animal advocacy protest in the United States. And compared to other movements, the topic of animal rights or veganism is still a fringe one (e.g., most people eat animal products), so the overall cause of animal advocacy is not yet popular with the public. These two points seem like the best avenue for improving the impact of protests in animal advocacy. How do we increase our numbers and get more of the public to side with animal advocates?
For one, we could invite allies to protests who may not necessarily identify as vegan or vegetarian (veg*n). When I protested Marineland a few years ago, a theme park that holds an orca and several beluga whales captive, I noticed that not everyone in attendance was veg*n. However, everyone shared the same desire of shutting down the theme park. This was also one of the only animal advocacy protests I’ve participated in that had over a hundred people in attendance, something I was not used to seeing. A second way we can improve attendance at protests and increase public support is by building coalitions with other movements that are also negatively impacted by animal agriculture, such as slaughterhouse workers or environmental activists. And lastly, we could shift our protest goals to those already aligned with the public rather than outwardly proclaiming our goal of trying to end animal exploitation. Although many of us are working toward that long-term goal, realistic short-term goals with our protests like raising awareness of a particular issue, pressuring a company to drop a product, or getting a certain piece of legislation to pass, will be more likely to gain public support.
As for the last criterion, that successful protests are well-organized and have clear governance, previous researchers have found that well-organized protest groups from other movements have the following characteristics: a formal bureaucracy, a hierarchy, full-time employees, a membership list, a mission statement, and selective incentives. We don’t have clear, objective information about which animal protection groups are well-organized, so further research is needed to understand the influence of organizations on the success of animal rights protests.
This all goes to say that while looking at successful tactics from other movements is helpful to ensure that we only borrow good lessons, it’s important to honestly assess what aspects of our own movement are missing from these other movements. The context for animal advocacy is much different than the context for protesting fossil fuels, anti-racism, or human rights. Each of these causes has public support and the numbers to uphold the movement—something lacking for animal rights protests—but that can change if we adapt our goals and who we include.
We hope that animal advocates benefit from what we discovered about the impact of diet and animal advocacy tactics, and we encourage our fellow researchers to continue studying this important topic. Although we found protests were ineffective in terms of changing individual consumer behavior, we’re not suggesting that animal advocates stop participating in protests altogether (indeed, many Faunalytics team members have participated in protests). Rather, our report highlights the need for advocates to be realistic and aware of the impact protests can have on individual behavior change, and the context in which protests are more — or less —successful. Finally, our report also highlights the need for more research examining the impact of protests on more institutional-level outcomes and how protests can be used along with other tactics to create positive change for animals.