Activism as Marketing, and Why Vegetarian?

This was originally posted on the Voices of CAA Blog, which got fatally dismembered in a CMS upgrade.

A while ago, I read parts of The Lifelong Activist by Hillary Rettig. Rettig comes from a business background, and that strongly influences her take on how to be an effective activist.

One idea she brought up was that a lot of what we do as activists is basically marketing. We are trying to “sell” an idea to people, and get them to make a change based on that idea. Marketing is often thought of as a dirty word, and progressives may be especially turned off by this analogy, but for me it resonates quite strongly.

At CAA, we try to engage individual consumers and get them to make changes in their lifestyle, primarily in their purchasing. This really is marketing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course, when we do marketing, we abide by our core values, especially the value of Integrity. That means that we tell the truth, and we use facts, not misinformation. But that doesn’t rule out appeals to emotion either, and no doubt emotion (specifically, compassion and empathy) play a large role when people decide to go veg.

Getting back to Rettig, in her discussion of activism as marketing, she specifically addresses vegetarianism. She says that because we’re engaged in an effort to persuade, the best argument for vegetarianism is personal health. In short, go veg and you’ll be healthier. On the surface, this seems like a good tactic. People are self-interested, and appealing to that self-interest could be the most effective lever on which to exert pressure.

I think this argument is 100% wrong. Why does CAA focus on animal suffering, rather than health? There are several reasons. First and foremost, CAA is an animal advocacy organization, so we talk about animal suffering. We are not a human health advocacy group, and any claims to that effect would be disingenuous. Remember that Integrity value?

Second, while people are self-interested, the number of obese people in this country tells me that people are not terribly motivated by personal health, even if they claim that they are. People want to be healthy, but they don’t want to work really hard at it. Lest you accuse me of casting stones, I’m including myself in that generalization.

Finally, the health argument fails when one looks at the facts. Yes, a vegetarian diet is healthier than what many Americans eat, but that’s because lots of Americans eat really, really unhealthy food. It is possible to design a very healthy diet that’s not vegetarian. So we can’t say that vegetarian is the most healthy, just that is it a healthy diet. It’s hard to construct a good sales pitch from that.

But if vegetarianism doesn’t win on the health argument, it does win when it comes to animal suffering. If you care about animals, you should stop eating them. That’s a nice, simple argument, well backed up by facts about the animal ag industry, and our experience shows that it is an effective one.