Two pieces of research regarding
vegetarianism have recently been published. The first, a book by
Dr. Donna Maurer, builds on the years of research that went into
her PhD dissertation.
The other, more publicized report, is based on work with focus groups
containing 14 non-vegetarians in Seattle.
As explained below, the ARMEDIA conclusions appear to be based on
- Non-vegetarians know what is the most effective argument to convince
them to try vegetarianism;
- The health
argument leads to strict vegetarianism, instead of to
consumption of chickens and fishes.
We would argue that these are not accurate assumptions. Read on
for more details
Commentary on Two Recent Analyses of Effective Means for Spreading
by Jack Norris
Part 1: Book Review:
Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? by Donna Maurer, PhD
Available from Temple University for $19.95 (get a
30% Discount through the end of May)
Is vegetarianism a fad that is here today but may very well be gone
tomorrow? Will the percentage of vegetarians in North America ever
increase significantly? How can we attract more people to vegetarianism?
In her book, Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment, Dr. Donna
Maurer examines these questions.
Dr. Maurer has written an extensive, interesting history of the
vegetarian movement in North America, discussing the various tactics
used to expand the numbers of vegetarians. Chapter 2 includes a historical
overview of vegetarianism in the U.S., while Chapter 3 gives a history
of the contemporary vegetarian movement in the U.S.
Dr. Maurer allows the reader to step away from the movement and
look back at it. It is an attempt to see the forest, despite
the trees. We especially recommend the book to new vegetarian
advocates; reading Vegetarianism early in ones advocacy
could quickly advance thinking on the subject, saving years of trial
and error. As the saying goes: Those who do not learn from history
are doomed to repeat it.
Dr. Maurer frames vegetarian advocacy as two movements:
- Ethical movement calling on people to change for the collective
- Exemplary movement calling on people to change for their
own individual benefit
Dr. Maurer stresses that a collective identity must be shared for
people to become active promoters of vegetarianism. She says, Aware
that [becoming vegetarian for health reasons] is the most common
scenario, many vegetarian leaders seek to move health-motivated,
self-interested 'exemplary' vegetarians to a more ethical focus that
centers on caring more about other humans and animals. However,
the dilemma is that a collective identity can scare people away who
do not want to be a part of that identity, such as health-motivated
Dr. Maurer says, The North American vegetarian movement has
always taken an exemplary approach. She points out some drawbacks
to this approach:
Health-centered strategies may appeal to a relatively wide audience,
but they are more likely to motivate people to try vegetarian foods
or to experiment with semivegetarian diets than to motivate a cadre
of committed vegetarian advocates.... Convincing people that meat
(including poultry and fish) is so unhealthful that they should
eliminate it completely from their diets would seem a difficult,
if not insurmountable task
.As a result, people often move
toward vegetarianism by cutting back on their consumption of meat,
or they try vegetarianism briefly and then give it up.
People motivated by health concerns tend to be less committed
to vegetarianism than those motivated by ethics.
In discussing the various tactics of vegetarian groups (i.e., groups
whose main purpose is to promote vegetarians), Dr. Maurer says, As
we have noted, however, most vegetarian groups with the notable
exception of EarthSave International address personal health
benefits before presenting environmental reasons for vegetarianism.
In Chapter 8, Dr. Maurer asks the question, Why hasnt
the vegetarian movement had more success? She contends it is because
we have not proven to the public that:
- Meat eating is imminently dangerous, nor
- Meat eating is immoral
One of these is required for success. As for approach one, Dr. Maurer
states, Convincing people that meat (including poultry and
fish) is so unhealthful that they should eliminate it completely
from their diets would seem a difficult, if not insurmountable, task.
However, she also points out that strategy #2 may produce more of
a movement for reforming farm practices than vegetarianism. [This
may not be an all together bad thing, though, given that true reforms
could reduce a great deal of animal suffering.]
Dr. Maurer does not give a specific recommendation for how the vegetarian
movement should proceed. Her conclusion seems to be that more people
are persuaded to try vegetarianism for health benefits, but if we
do not succeed in converting these people to the ethical arguments,
our movement will not grow to any great extent.
Part 2: Comments on ARMEDIA Focus Group Report:
ARMEDIA Institute is a non-profit, animal advocacy organization
conducting research on how best to spread vegetarianism and help
farmed animals. They recently conducted focus groups exploring methods
for spreading vegetarianism.
They conducted 4 separate focus groups:
- 7 female vegetarians; average age: 31
- 7 female non-vegetarians; average age: 36
- 9 male vegetarians; average age: 25
- 7 male non-vegetarians; average age: 39
The group moderator asked questions about why the vegetarians are
vegetarian, why the non-vegetarians arent vegetarian, and what
they think of animal rights and vegetarian advocates. Two pieces
of literature were assessed: Petas Vegetarian Starter Kit
and Vegan Outreachs Vegetarian Living (the less graphic
version of Why Vegan; see a pdf version at the advocacy
Some of the highlights of the report:
While the vegetarians were not offended by graphic pictures, the
non-vegetarians found them sensational, and said the
pictures made them more resistant to the vegetarian message. On the
other hand, non-vegetarians who ate fewer animal products were more
open to graphic images because they did not feel so responsible.
What Prevents Non-Vegetarians from Trying Vegetarianism?
ARMEDIA says, Non-vegetarians cite taste, accessibility (convenience,
cost), and variety, generally in that order, as the key reasons why
they would not want or be able to adopt a vegetarian diet
to a non-vegetarian female respondent, age 38: the only thing
at this point in my life that would (convince me to adopt a vegetarian
diet) would be a directive from my physician saying you need
to stop eating (meat) or youre going to be dead. A doctors
recommendation or mandate was easily the most influential and most
credible potential motivator for non-vegetarian respondents.
Why Do Vegetarians Choose Their Diet?
The vegetarians were mostly vegetarian for animal rights reasons.
They had become vegetarian at a young age typically during
their teens or twenties. The reasons they originally became vegetarian
were not determined.
Vegan Outreachs Analysis of ARMEDIAs Research Methods
We commend ARMEDIA for applying marketing research methods to vegetarian
advocacy. When applied correctly, these methods can help identify
arguments and literature that are persuasive in promoting vegetarianism
to segmented groups. However, ARMEDIAs focus group research
suffers from two methodological flaws that make interpretation difficult
sample selection and research design.
In most focus group research, the participants are picked to represent
the target audience for a particular marketing campaign. However,
in the ARMEDIA study, the non-vegetarian participants were significantly
older than the typical target audience for vegetarian advocacy. The
mean age of non-vegetarians in the study was 37, while the mean age
of people becoming vegetarian in the study was 17. As ARMEDIA concluded,
vegetarian advocacy appears to be best targeted to people in high
school and college. Likewise, responses from the older non-vegetarians
in the study are not particularly useful in guiding advocacy.
More importantly, ARMEDIA picked a research design that is not useful
for measuring behavior modification. Focus groups are useful in measuring
the current knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of a population. However,
focus groups are unreliable in predicting how behavior can best be
modified. In this case, you cannot accurately predict what motivates
people to become vegetarian by asking non-vegetarians what they think
would motivate them. Non-vegetarians may not like literature that
makes them feel uncomfortable. But to get someone to change long-ingrained,
pleasurable habits, it may take discomfort. Also, people are not
always candid when discussing moral issues in front of others. Sensitive
issues lend themselves more to surveys than to focus groups.
To investigate the question rigorously, a different research design
would have to be used. Traditionally, questions of behavior modification,
such as what motivates people to go vegetarian, are investigated
using experimental surveys or tracking panels, employing a control
group. Assign randomly-chosen persons of the target audience (non-vegetarians
in high school or college) to three or more groups: two or more experimental
groups that will be exposed to vegetarian literature of different
content (e.g., health arguments, animal welfare arguments), and a
control group that will not be exposed to vegetarian literature.
Assess the groups feelings towards vegetarianism through a
survey or panel, before and after exposing the experimental groups
to vegetarian literature. See how peoples attitudes and diets
have changed after being introduced to the literature. Which literature
was more effective? What characteristics in the target group were
most correlated with behavior change (age, gender, educational level)?
Then track their behavior over a long period of time. Finally, applying
appropriate statistical methods is necessary to understand whether
the results are simply due to random chance or a true effect.
ARMEDIAs focus groups give us insight about what older non-vegetarian
adults think about vegetarianism and some vegetarian-promoting literature,
particularly when in a group setting.
Some of ARMEDIAs Conclusions, Followed by Vegan Outreachs
- [A] comprehensive reevaluation of the vegetarian advocacy
movements strategies and tactics is much needed.
As Donna Maurer points out, promoting vegetarianism for health and
environmental reasons was the main public face of vegetarianism
for many years (arguably decades), and the move towards using graphic
pictures of animals is the response to a reassessment of the original
U.S. vegetarian movement. ARMEDIA should consider their opinions
in the context of a movement that started out mainly focused on the
arguments to which they are now suggesting we return our emphasis
(i.e., the health argument).
- Emphasize the health angle
Heart and cancer organizations have for years been promoting the
eating of more fruits, vegetables, and fiber, and less saturated
fat. Yet, Americans still fail miserably at meeting their recommendations.
Can vegetarian advocacy organizations succeed where these mainstream
organizations have failed?
The non-vegetarians in ARMEDIAs focus group basically said
they wont go vegetarian unless they are about to die from eating
meat. Nothing that vegetarian advocates could offer would be of the
magnitude of a doctor telling someone they will die if they do not
become vegetarian. Thus, it seems that the health argument, while
being more palatable to the general public than animal suffering
arguments, is also generally unpersuasive.
In their Executive Summary, ARMEDIA states, Skepticism of
vegetarianism, the animal rights ideology, and the movements
sources of information is high. We would suggest that the exaggeration
of the health reasons for people to go vegetarian has contributed
to this state of skepticism. The health
argument also poses some risks.
As one focus group participant stated, For health [reasons]
they might cut back or switch to chicken or fish or something.
Many Americans appear to have given up beef for chicken and in so
doing, have dramatically increased the number of animals raised in
- The movement needs more special interest groups focused
on issues such as food safety, hormone and antibiotic reduction,
cancer prevention, heart disease awareness, wastewater pollution,
global hunger, etc.
Meat contamination issues are regularly exposed in the mainstream
media (eg 1,
reaching far more people than animal advocates could ever dream of.
Yet, they have not resulted in a measurable increase in vegetarianism.
Can animal rights activists be expected to be more effective at reaching
the public with these messages?
- The animal rights and vegetarian advocacy movements are
generally effective at targeting people who already have leanings
toward vegetarianism, but are deficient in their ability to make
pro-vegetarian arguments appeal to more mainstream audiences.
In our experience, many people who had no idea they were interested
in vegetarianism, and others who were downright anti-vegetarian,
have been persuaded by getting a Why Vegan handed to them
while walking down the street. The graphic images are the main reason
for their sudden interest in vegetarianism.
- Emphasis should be placed on targeting young audiences as they
are more susceptible to vegetarian and animal rights arguments.
Something with which we agree! In general, older generations care
less about animals than younger generations, and are more resistant
to change. Younger generations are more in tune with progressive
ideas and opposed to discrimination against other humans and animals.
Vegan Outreachs Conclusion
The vegetarians in ARMEDIAs group are vegetarian mostly for
animal rights reasons. Although these numbers are not large enough
to draw conclusions, ARMEDIAs own evidence suggests that its
actually the animal rights argument which should be emphasized.
We simply cannot reach everyone. Trying to do so wastes our precious
time and resources on arguments that will only delay societys
acceptance of rights for animals. We should focus our energy reaching
younger people who will embrace the ideals of ethical vegetarianism.
For our numbers to grow, we need more vegetarian advocates. As Dr.
Maurer points out, only ethically motivated vegetarians can be expected
to become advocates to any appreciable degree.
As older generations are replaced by younger, there will be a natural
progression towards a more humane society. Instead of trying to make
our arguments palatable to older people who are unlikely to change
their diet unless their health immediately depends upon it, it makes
more sense to target younger audiences, reporting the animal suffering
involved in factory farming.
We are not saying that middle-aged or older adults should be ignored
completely. But when targeting them, we should not assume that particular
methods do or do not work until those methods are tested in a way
that can properly determine this.
Vegan Outreach is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the suffering of farmed animals by promoting informed, ethical eating.
All donations are tax-deductible.
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