Animal Cruelty Messages Are Persuasive - If We Can Overcome Avoidance

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In this article, RAC member Chris Bryant analyses vegan advocacy messaging and considers the issue of avoidance, presenting suggestions for improving message persuasiveness.

There is often a debate about the best messages to focus on when advocating for veganism - while some prefer to focus on the core message of non-human animal cruelty, others favour environmental or health-based arguments. Here, I argue that messages focused on non-human animal cruelty are the most effective, and the key problem to overcome is avoidance of these messages; I also present some tips for improving message persuasiveness, and finally, make a case for using hard-to-avoid media such as billboards, TV, and radio ads.

Non-human animal Messages Are Persuasive, Robust, Well-Aligned, and Lead to Long-Term Change

When choosing which message to focus on in communications, there are several things to consider. The Sentience Institute rated each of these three arguments on a range of criteria, finding that while health messages were more appealing to selfish motivations and more mainstream, non-human animal protection arguments were strongest in terms of value alignment, inspiring leadership on the issue, and promoting moral outrage. This was also the most robust in terms of the consensus of the harm caused (some environmental or health claims about veganism are arguably more debatable).

Furthermore, experimental studies generally find that non-human animal cruelty messages are the most likely to inspire dietary change compared to health or environmental messages (see Table 1).

Table 1: Experimental studies comparing meat reduction outcomes between different messages.





Humane League Labs (2015)

N=784, 42% under 25


Those who saw a pamphlet about non-human animal cruelty were most likely to intend to change their eating habits (51%), more likely than those who saw a pamphlet about the environment (41%) or a purist abolition pamphlet (27%).

Faunalytics (2012)

Over 500 people aged 15-23

Short videos

Those who saw a video about non-human animal cruelty were the most likely to report intentions to reduce their non-human animal product consumption (36%), more likely than those who saw a video about the environment (31%), health (30%), or non-human animal individualisation (27%). In terms of intentions to eliminate non-human animal product consumption, the non-human animal cruelty video was again the most successful (12%) followed by the non-human animal individualisation video (10%).

Humane League Labs (2014)

N=798; 42% under 25


Those who saw leaflets focused on non-human animal cruelty were the most likely to give their email address to receive a veg starter guide (53%), more likely than those who saw leaflet about health (34%), those who saw a combined non-human animals+health message (41%), and those who saw a combined non-human animals+health+environment message (46%).

Palomo Velez, Tybur & van Vugt (2018)

309 US MTurkers + 383 US MTurkers

Persuasive essays

Those who read non-human animal cruelty essays (0.8) and disgust essays (0.8) reported the largest difference in appeal between a meat option and a vegetarian option, larger than those who read a health essay (0.7) or an environment essay (0.2).

Humane League Labs (2014)

3,233 young people


Those who received leaflets about non-human animal cruelty reported subsequent dietary decisions which saved more non-human animals (3.27) than those given a leaflet about health (2.94).

Carfora, Bertolotti & Catellani (2019)

180 Italian students

Text messages

Text messages focused on an emotional message caused a decrease in meat consumption, but text messages with an informative message did not.

Ye & Mattila (2021)

156 US MTurkers + 160 US MTurkers

Food photos with descriptions; articles

Those who saw a tagline highlighting the non-human animal and environmental benefits of the plant-based option reported the strongest preference for a plant-based option (4.64), stronger than those who saw a tagline about its taste similarity (3.24) or relative healthiness (3.79). Those who read an article about non-human animal and environmental benefits or health benefits were equally more likely to choose a plant-based option compared to a control.

Vainio & Hartikainen (2018)

1,279 adults in Finland

Information on screen

Health-based, environment-based, and combination messages were effective in reducing meat consumption intentions, but no difference between the three was observed.

Lai, Tirotto, Pagliaro & Fornara (2020)

198 + 218 Italian adults

Online simulated shop

Both health-based and environment-based messages increased selection of plant-based alternatives over meat, though no difference between the two was observed.

Bryant, Platt, Vultaggio & Dillard (2021)

68,634 Facebook users

Social media ads

Advertisements depicting non-human animal suffering achieved a CTR (3%) more than twice as high as health- (1.4%), or environment- (1.2%), or social-related (1.2%) ads.

This table represents studies from a range of sources, but this meta-analysis also supports the view that appeals to non-human animal suffering are effective at reducing meat consumption.

As well as this experimental evidence for the relative efficacy of the non-human animal message, some survey evidence supports the efficacy of promoting non-human animal motivations. Faunalytics found that, among a sample of former vegetarians and vegans, the only motivation towards veganism cited by a majority was health, whereas current vegetarians and vegans cited a range of concerns including non-human animals and the environment. This suggests that those who go vegetarian for health reasons are less likely to stick with the diet in the future. A Humane League Labs survey found that strict vegetarians and vegans were more likely to say non-human animals were their primary concern, whereas semi-vegetarians and meat-reducers were more likely to cite health reasons. This suggests that those who are motivated by non-human animal suffering are also more committed than those who are motivated by other reasons.

The Best Messages Are Emotive, Contain Achievable Asks, and Leverage Social Norms

There are ways to refine non-human animal welfare appeals further. Research from Mercy For Animals (here and here) highlights that pigs are the farmed non-human animal perceived as the most capable of suffering, and associated with most clicks on an online ad. Humane League Labs analysed responses to different photos of farmed non-human animals, finding that photos of sick or injured non-human animals were the most compelling, and photos of non-human animals confined in small cages also worked well; photos of happy non-human animals were least compelling. The study also found that photos of mother and baby non-human animals together tended to be most impactful, and photos of baby non-human animals alone also worked well. Adult non-human animals alone were the least impactful.

There is also some evidence for the increased efficacy of easier-to-achieve calls to action in non-human animal campaigns. Some research found that a ‘Try vegan’ call to action was slightly more compelling than a ‘Go vegan’ call to action (though the difference was not found to be significant). More recently, research showed that an op-ed encouraging people to reduce their meat consumption was effective, whereas an op-ed encouraging people to eliminate meat was not. Similarly, the table above shows a Humane League Labs study that found far more people intended to reduce their meat consumption in response to an non-human animal cruelty message compared to a purity non-human animal abolition message.

This increase in intended behavioural change is likely due to increased perceived behavioural control - in other words, people are more likely to intend to change if they see change as more easily achievable. Perceived behavioural control is known to be a key component of behavioural change according to the theory of planned behaviour.

Another component highlighted by the Theory of Planned Behaviour is subjective norms, or one’s beliefs about other peoples’ approval of the behaviour. This certainly seems to be relevant to non-human animal product consumption; one study found that people are more likely to choose non-human animal product alternatives when they are told that more other people are making the same choice. Similarly, this classic study found that a message in hotel rooms informing guests about the environmental benefits of re-using their towels was less effective at encouraging this behavior than a message informing guests that most other hotel guests reused their towels. This suggests that there could be a value to adding a social norm message, for example, ‘Join the millions of others ditching dairy for plant-based milk’.

People Avoid non-human animal Cruelty Images, But This Can Be Overcome

Appeals to non-human animal suffering are an effective way of reducing meat consumption, especially when they contain emotive images, achievable asks, and social proof. However, a big problem for non-human animal cruelty appeals is that, although they are the most effective at inspiring dietary change, they are also commonly avoided. The Faunalytics study in Table 1 found that the non-human animal cruelty video was the most effective at changing diet - but it also found that this video was associated with the highest rate of abandonment before full viewing. Similarly, in a study about what to put on the cover of vegetarian literature, Humane League Labs found that while non-human animal cruelty images were most effective at inspiring dietary change, they were also far less frequently chosen to read compared to other cover images. I have argued in the past that this presents advocates with a problem - the most effective message is one that people do not want to look at.

Health messages like Game Changers and environmental messages like Seaspiracy stand a much better chance of becoming popular than non-human animal-based messages like Earthlings because people are much more willing to watch them. However, if we could choose to have people watch any of these, the evidence suggests that the non-human animal message is, in fact, the most effective at creating change. It is probably because this information effectively puts people off meat that they try to avoid it. This is why we often use euphemisms to refer to non-human animal-based foods: one experiment found that, when people saw menu items labelled as ‘cow’ or ‘pig’ rather than ‘beef’ or ‘pork’, they were significantly more likely to choose a vegetarian option instead.

Therefore, we need to overcome the problem of avoidance by using media that are hard to avoid. Unlike a documentary which someone can choose not to watch, or a leaflet which someone can choose not to pick up, billboards, TV, and radio adverts are difficult to avoid, and thus overcome the primary barrier to the non-human animal message getting traction: avoidance. These media essentially have a captive audience, meaning that they have an opportunity to give people messages they might otherwise actively try to avoid.

The Most Effective Message Is Also The Most Avoided

In summary, as well as being optimal in terms of robustness and value alignment, non-human animal cruelty messages tend to be the most likely to lead to behaviour change, and are associated with a higher degree of non-human animal product avoidance for longer periods of time. The most effective messages include emotive images of suffering pigs and baby non-human animals, contain achievable asks, and leverage social norms. The major challenge for these impactful images relates to avoidance, and therefore non-human animal advocates should use media such as billboards, TV, and radio ads which are more difficult to avoid than documentaries, leaflets, and social media ads.


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