Using Narrative And Framing In Animal Advocacy
Framing refers to patterns of language that shape the way people interpret information. Different frames are like metaphors used to make sense of the world; they bring certain information into view while leaving other information out.
Pax Fauna, an animal freedom nonprofit I cofounded in 2021, recently conducted an 18-month study to examine the active, latent, and potential narratives which already exist in society’s relationship to farmed animals, to identify weaknesses in the dominant narrative that supports animal farming, and to find promising new narratives with which to replace it. The research was designed to identify frames and test whether messages based on them could broaden support for the movement to end animal farming.
Among animal advocates, discussions of framing have often centered around the relative efficacy of messages focused on animal cruelty, environmental harm, or human health. This study examined frames that operate on a deeper, more subconscious level. We studied these questions through literature reviews; analyses of messaging currently in play by advocates, opposition groups, and the media; individual interviews and focus groups of about 200 ordinary, meat-eating Americans; and finally a series of large surveys of the same.
Frames have a mutually inhibitive relationship, much the same as how flexing your bicep deactivates your tricep. Various surveys from the previous decade suggested that pro-movement frames already exist in the minds of many Americans, perhaps most notably one by Sentience Institute finding that as many as 48% of Americans would support a ban on slaughterhouses (while also affirming that eating meat is a personal choice). Our goal was to identify those frames and find messages that can reliably draw them out.
The frame behind affirming “personal choice” is relatively clear: it is what we call the consumer frame throughout this blog. The consumer frame focuses on the relationship between the individual consumer and their food retailers, conjuring strong values of personal choice and autonomy as well as images of shopping at a grocery store or dining at a restaurant.
But it wasn’t so obvious what was going on in people’s minds when they expressed pro-animal views. That’s what this study was designed to investigate.
Animal advocates often focus on informing the public about the harms of animal agriculture. However, many people are already aware of these harms. Our study participants deftly rationalized their attachment to animal meat using values like culture, tradition, naturalness, price, taste, and personal choice. The most pervasive rationalization we encountered was futility: the belief that society will never stop farming animals, and nothing an individual can do will make a difference.
We see this as closely linked to the consumer frame, which is the default way Americans think about food. This frame leaves out the role that government and corporate policy play in shaping people’s food choices. Advocates must reframe the conversation and create a role for these key players to help people imagine a society-wide transition away from farming animals. As animal advocates, we must be disciplined in our messaging, as any ask of the public to change their food purchasing in the immediate term can be at odds with a message about government intervention in the food system.
What follows below are our key recommendations, as well as a chart that simplifies some of the strategies and tactics advocates can use to put these recommendations into practice.
- Shift from consumer-centric to civic narratives by engaging with the public in their role as citizens, rather than consumers. Remove references to personal responsibility and create specific asks of the public, such as voting for animal-friendly political candidates.
- Use the metaphor of evolution to describe a society-wide shift away from farming animals, which helps people imagine a gradual transition at the societal level. This narrative also conjures progress and modernity, suppressing counter-arguments based on nature and tradition. Incorporate the narrative of evolving together into messaging.
- Elevate meat-eating messengers to highlight civic action and expand the base of the movement. Relatability and trustworthiness are more important than the authority of the speaker. Messengers who explicitly mention that they still eat meat are effective in overcoming defensiveness. Meat-eating messengers from demographics not typically associated with meat reduction and animal rights should be used to deliver animal advocacy messages.
- Target the humane deception with “It’s no secret…” The public has conflicting views about small family farms and large industrial farms. Some consumers believe their meat is sourced from small farms, while labels like “cage-free” and “free-range” are controversial. Some consumers have confidence in them, while others consider them meaningless or doubtful. Information about the ubiquity of industrial farming paired with assertions that this information is widely known can change the course of conversations. Advocates should spread the word that 99% of animals are raised in factory farms and that “cage-free” or “free-range” conditions are inhumane.
- Actively target rationalizations based on culture, naturalness, and freedom of choice. Advocates should make room in their messaging strategy for addressing common rationalizations directly. Failing to engage with these objections risks being seen as out of touch, despite the need to spread information about the ethical and environmental harms of animal farming.
- Show empathy to the rationalizations of the meat-eating public. To overcome defensiveness, advocates should respond to common rationalizations with curiosity and connection. In individual outreach, ask questions to identify the values underpinning the objection. In mass-messaging contexts, affirm common values and use animal-free food in place of meat to show we share universal values. Showing empathy for underlying values can help the public see their own rationalizations and subvert them.
- Pursue policy demands focused on making animal-free foods more affordable and accessible. People are concerned about food deserts and affordability. Advocates should address these issues in messages to demonstrate concern for the public’s economic realities as well as animal welfare. Advocates should focus public attention on demands that specifically address the affordability and accessibility of alternatives to animal meat.
- Use non-exaggerated facts and provide citations. Study participants were often ambivalent towards facts- while people asked advocates to focus on data, they expressed skepticism when facts were presented. The most effective messages were those which included numerical facts and citations. Numerical facts should compare how things are now to how they could be without animals used for food. Advocates should err on the conservative side of any range when making numerical claims to avoid skepticism and misinformation.
- Tone down emotional language without sacrificing emotional connections. Messages should create an emotional connection to animal suffering without being seen as manipulative or hysterical. Advocates should reduce excessive emotional language by using fewer adverbs, avoiding absolute statements, and opting for less emotionally charged synonyms, trusting that the plain facts of the situation are tragic enough.
- Use questions, images, and explicit pro-emotion arguments to create an emotional connection. Messages formatted as questions, images of cute, thriving animals, and explicit arguments for emotions as data were effective at avoiding an otherwise reflexive defensive reaction in participants. Also, while graphic imagery is generally met with defensiveness, advocates can make greater use of images of animals after slaughter but before being fully processed into food to evoke a strong visceral disgust response without being seen as manipulative [Please note, while Faunalytics does not share graphic imagery, you can see the kind of imagery that Pax Fauna has in mind by viewing the full report. — Ed.]. Advocates should explicitly argue for emotions as data, acknowledging that the issue of animal suffering is inherently emotional.
- Avoid jargon and activist-speak. Test messages with ordinary people before publishing and avoid using words and phrases that are unfamiliar to the general public. One message we tested, for example, borrowed from an advocacy group and used “deadpile” to refer to a pile of dead pigs inside a pig farm. However, many participants were confused by this term, and it distracted them from engaging with the message. We recommend that as far as possible, every message is tested with ordinary people to catch jargon before publishing. This doesn’t have to be a systematic study- running by a few friends or relatives outside the movement can help to keep us honest about jargon.
- Beware of health-centered messaging, which inadvertently triggers the consumer frame. Like food, health is a topic strongly linked to the consumer frame. That is, most people see it as a result of good or bad personal choices rather than systemic factors. Advocates should be cautious with health-based arguments as they may even backfire and may not even have broad appeal. Advocates can focus on public health statistics and food deserts to build support for policy interventions.
- Treat the base, persuadables, and opposition differently. The public is not monolithic in their views on farming animals. Advocates should segment the public and target messages to different groups depending on their level of support for the movement. The base (roughly 15-30%) is receptive to altruistic appeals, while the persuadable middle (60-75%) is easier to motivate by activating disgust. The opposition is unreachable in the near future, and thus targeting messaging to this group is probably a poor use of resources.
- Use the radical flank effect to legitimize more ambitious policy objectives. Initially, proposals seemed too much, too fast to research participants. They bartered down to a more moderate proposal, dependent on the proposal they saw first. The radical flank effect was evident as the most radical proposal shaped what people saw as reasonable. Animal advocates can use this effect by ensuring more ambitious proposals are in the public’s awareness.
- Don’t hold back when pitching the media. The media is generally much more sympathetic to our narrative than to that of our opponents. They generally accept that farming animals is creating serious problems that need to be addressed. While they don’t yet accept that animal suffering alone should be a sufficient reason to completely end animal farming, they aren’t far from that conclusion. They already understand the impact on the climate, so, when giving quotes to the media, advocates’ focus should be on animal suffering and the need to end animal farming completely. They also need proactive education about the infeasibility of small-scale methods like “regenerative agriculture” and advocates’ reasons for focusing on changes to law and policy rather than individual consumer change.
Here are the most common rationalizations we observed and a suggested strategy to preempt each of them:
To check out the full study, be sure to visit the Pax Fauna site.