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A new study finds messages that stress civic action and collective evolution resonate better with focus groups.
Words by Grace Hussain
The benefits of eating less meat are no secret. Whether the research lens is climate change, animal intelligence, pollution or biodiversity, there’s clear science in favor of a dietary shift away from animal farming. The problem is just telling people to eat less meat isn’t all that effective. A 2022 study by Faunalytics found news and social media posts had no effect on meat eaters, for example.
New research from the advocacy group Pax Fauna suggests there might be a better way. Over a span of 18 months, the group conducted interviews and focus groups made up of more than 200 U.S. meat eaters to figure out if a new kind of message would be more effective.
Messages like “eat less meat” and “switching to a vegan diet can help you reduce your carbon footprint” aren’t so persuasive. These messages are speaking to us as consumers, explains Pax Fauna researcher Aidan Kankyoku. The problem with this consumerist framing is it focuses solely on individual action, leaving out institutional actors like policy makers or corporations, for example. “It ignores the fact that a lot of our food choices are more shaped by macroeconomic trends and government policy than personal choice,” says Kankyoku.
Individual dietary shifts do have the potential to be effective, but consumers don’t necessarily see it. The idea of persuading huge swaths of shoppers, grocery stores and restaurants to give up meat strikes them as futile, and that sense of futility turns out to be the most prominent reason meat eaters cite for why they keep eating meat.
What did work with focus groups is to frame the message in terms of civic action — messages like “ending the farming of animals is one vital solution we need in order to limit warming to 1.5°C.”
This type of framing highlights collective efforts and a common goal. And you can tie that larger momentum to specific actions like ballot measures or animal-friendly political candidates, the research suggests.
Another effective strategy is to use messages with a narrative of “society evolving together.” Narratives that convey a sense of evolution helped participants see plant-based transition as something that’s possible rather than futile.
When people think about their civic role, Kankyoku says, it’s much easier to accept that societal change doesn’t happen overnight. It might take years or even decades to achieve.
What’s appealing, potentially, is the idea of “evolution” signals modernity and progress. The participants even started using “evolving together”-like language among themselves in focus groups, suggesting that the metaphor has the ability to spread on its own.
Relatability matters, the research suggests. Participants found meat-eaters to be relatable and trustworthy, more appealing as messengers than scientists or doctors. Vegans — no matter how gently they shared their messages — were perceived as judgmental.
The bottom line is most people are omnivores. They may not like how meat is produced but they still enjoy consuming it. That might be why the most relatable messengers are people who can talk about eating less meat as a struggle, one they sometimes fail to overcome.
That’s not to say that facts and sources don’t matter. Participants did say they wanted facts, over and over again. But often when they got them, participants sometimes treated facts with skepticism. Providing a source that participants can access on their own helped them overcome their doubt.
The point of the research is to show that the movement to eat less meat isn’t just for “weirdos,” Kankyoku says, but “actually something that normal people can participate in even if they’re not quite vegan in their personal diet.”
Pax Fauna will soon put their findings to the test with a campaign in the Denver metro-area though, for now, the project is still in the planning stages.
Ultimately, it’s important to listen to the reasons people give for why they eat meat. “They’re not just something people are using to deflect away from an uncomfortable issue,” says Kankyoku. They come from a genuine place — “a sincere belief that they’re trying to sort through.”
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