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The cows aren’t laughing: the psychological effects of meat, egg and dairy advertisement


The cows aren’t laughing: the psychological effects of meat, egg and dairy advertisement

To mark the release of a new report called 'The Cows Aren't Laughing' by our friends at AdFree Cities, this month we have a special guest blog written by Nicola Round (Co-Director of AdFree Cities) who explores how meat advertising has affected how we, as human beings, relate to animals.
This is a blog by Nicola Round
Nicola is the Co-Director of AdFree Cities

The excess of meat advertising in our public spaces has become so normalised that we wander past giant images featuring the products of cruelty, violence and death multiple times every day, without stopping to question it. What does this say about our culture and how we are encouraged to relate to animals, and each other? And how can ending advertising for the products of the oppressive factory farming system bring wider benefits for society?

Meat advertising normalises and reinforces oppression and violence

Advertising is all around us, and large-scale advertising billboards in our public spaces commonly promote big brands selling us products which are harmful to our health and our planet, such as fast cars, fast food and ultra fast fashion. Glossy images and slogans on billboards aim to distort our understanding and conceal the ugly origins of the products they so desperately want us to buy. Imagine if a Boohoo advert was required to tell you about the dangerous conditions and £3/hour pay for workers in their Leicester factories, or if a Toyota EV advert had to include information about the impact of lithium mining on communities in Argentina. Products that are created through the suffering of others have to tell us a different story to get us to purchase them – they have to distract and mislead us.

The representations – or increasingly, the total erasure – of animals and the misleading messages we see in adverts for meat, egg and dairy products are among the most problematic examples. Adverts for burgers and fried chicken are among the most common we see on billboards and bus stops, with McDonald’s being by far the biggest spender on outdoor advertising in the UK (at £78.8 million per year). KFC is not far behind, at number five (spending £25.7 million per year [ref]). Adverts for meat and dairy rarely refer to the animals whose bodies become our meals. Where they do, it is often in a distorted or objectified form such as KFC’s dancing chicken, or as an animal who couldn’t be happier to give her life to us, such as the Anchor Cows who work in the dairy or the huge 3D digital advert advertising M&S ‘chilled milk’ seen in Piccadilly Circus this year which conveniently leaves out the most important, cruel aspects of the process of forcibly extracting cows’ milk.

Image by AdFree Cities

This proliferation of meat and dairy advertising in our public spaces normalises and justifies overconsumption of both, which is a big problem when we face an urgent need to reduce these animal products, particularly in the Global North. With growing concerns about the impacts of the destructive and cruel factory farming system on the environment and public health, advertisers increasingly seek to disconnect us from the origins of meat, dairy and eggs, so that we carry on consuming – often despite many of us having a nagging sense that there is something very wrong with how these foods are produced.

Adverts need to solve the problem of empathy

We naturally care about other animals, which is a problem for an industry trying to sell the products of mass confinement, abuse and slaughter of sentient beings. Despite the stories we are told of small family farms, laughing cows and happy eggs, the truth is that the vast majority of animals farmed in the UK live miserable, short lives confined on factory farms. The industries which intensively farm animals, and the advertisers who sell their products, teach us to suppress our natural empathy in order to make us feel OK about consuming them. This has been described by social psychologist Melanie Joy, as well as food policy campaigner Rob Percival, and is revealed in industry documents:

“[Animal agriculture] centres around offering the public bits of animals and often identifies meat with livestock. But modern consumers’ attitudes shy away from this link….There is an urgent need for a new retailer philosophy. We are no longer in the business of selling pieces of carcass meat. We must make our customers think forward of what they will eat rather than backwards to the animal in the field” – British Meat, 1987

Adfree Cities explores this in more depth in our new guide to the tactics of meat, egg and dairy advertising, The cows aren’t laughing.

This denial of our instinctive kindness teaches us to be less compassionate towards other humans, too, and to tolerate injustice and aggression towards marginalised groups. Laila Kassam of Animal Think Tank explores the links between the growth of animal agriculture, the emergence of capitalism and the rise of a wealthy, exploitative elite. Kassam shows that:

“The mentality required to oppress, exploit and dominate other animals is the same mentality that allows us to oppress, exploit and dominate humans and destroy our planet.” – Laila Kassam, Animal Think Tank

The way we treat fellow animals is an indicator of, and is intrinsically linked to, the way we treat fellow humans, as Tom Crompton has previously explored on this blog – and the divisive thinking and messaging holds back progress towards justice for all.

Artwork by Seize the Mean
The role of the regulator

Can we look to advertising industry regulation for help? The Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) codes cover the avoidance of harm and offence in advertising, enforced by the regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). However the rights of animals are not protected through advertising regulation, other than to ensure that the animals who appear in adverts themselves are not harmed, or that the advert is not at risk of encouraging harmful behaviour towards animals (such as feeding Christmas pudding to dogs).

It is telling that where the ASA does cover guidance about the representation of animals in adverts, their advice is that a more humorous or cartoon-like depiction is more likely to be acceptable, whereas an advert which features animals in distress may be subject to enforcement action. This happened in the case of an advert by the non-profit Vegan Friendly UK, which highlighted the inconsistency between people’s consumption of meat and their care for animals. The ASA banned the advert after receiving complaints from people who found it graphic and distressing. While it makes sense to avoid exposing people, particularly children, to overly distressing imagery, this does lay bare the purpose of advertising for meat, eggs and dairy products: to distance us from the origins of our food, so that we remain ignorant of the true cost and impact of what we consume and continue to purchase these products without questioning.

So, one way we can challenge the oppression and exploitation of animals (known as speciesism) is to expose misleading advertising by reporting it to the ASA. We can hope that this leads to the creation of codes on the representation of animals, guidance on transparency about how meat, egg and dairy products are produced, and action against misleading or irresponsible adverts. However, given the weaknesses of the ASA (not least that it is an industry-funded body which takes action on a fraction of complained-about adverts, and in the cases where action is taken, it typically takes such a long time that the advert in question has already done its damage) an end to meat, egg and dairy advertising altogether would be a more effective step. 

There are growing calls to end advertising for climate-wrecking products like SUVs, fossil fuels and airlines. Several UK councils have passed motions to end such advertising, and the Green Party of England and Wales has recently passed a motion for a national ban on high carbon advertising. An end to meat, egg and dairy advertising is a realistic proposition, and policymakers may have more appetite for such a move which aims to reduce demand for harmful products, than they do for action to reduce production (for example by ending subsidies or changing land use).

Advertising limits our ability to choose and make informed decisions

Advertisers are fond of arguing that they help us to make choices, and of framing restrictions on advertising as an attack on our freedoms. But outdoor advertising sites are dominated by multinational corporations, and this prioritises their messages above local businesses or community initiatives. Their adverts use sophisticated manipulative tactics to tap into our insecurities and to manufacture our desires and needs. Far from helping us to make choices, this actively restricts our ability to make free and informed choices.

Furthermore, outdoor advertising is more prevalent in areas with multiple indices of deprivation, so these residents are exposed to more junk food adverts. Concentrations of fast food outlets are also higher in these areas, so advertising is compounding public health problems and its effects are disproportionately felt on people already experiencing greater deprivation. Researchers in Bristol found that: “Policies that specifically restrict such advertisements, therefore, have the potential to reduce health inequalities”.

This is one way in which advertising – which plays a leading role in shaping our culture, our desires and what we perceive to be ‘normal’ – employs tactics which objectify and devalue one vulnerable and oppressed group (animals) in order to sell harmful products to another vulnerable group (those with lower socio-economic means and greater health vulnerabilities).

The benefits of ending meat advertising

As Melanie Joy says, by challenging speciesism we challenge multiple injustices. As meat, egg and dairy advertising rely on speciesism to sell their products, understanding how we are being misled by these messages, and ultimately ending such advertising, would be a step towards justice for all.

By removing meat, egg and dairy adverts – and ultimately all corporate outdoor advertising – we would be one step closer to getting rid of the advertising noise that is hindering our ability to make informed choices, we would remove the barrage of adverts imploring us to buy unhealthy, damaging products from all of our neighbourhoods, and make all areas more pleasant to live in – not just the wealthy ones.

The cover image is by Lindsay Grime.

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