The "V" Word

A Note on Terminology and Strategy

Let us go on record for a moment—Mercy For Animals promotes, and has always promoted, a diet free of meat, dairy, and eggs. Our websites and print materials include 100 percent vegan recipes, and tips and information geared entirely towards a vegan lifestyle. They always have, and they always will. Few, if any, other animal advocacy organizations have done as much as MFA to consistently expose the cruelty of the dairy and egg industries in addition to the meat industry.

As a vegan advocacy organization, we are occasionally asked why we don’t always use the word “vegan” when we’re encouraging people to change their diets. While we do use “vegan” a lot, we also use other language. Sometimes we use “vegetarian.” At other times we encourage people to “cut out or cut back on meat.”

If we want the public to go vegan, why don’t we simply tell people to go vegan every time? The answer is simple.

Our goal is to create as much dietary change as possible in order to spare as many animals as possible from the misery of animal agriculture. To achieve that, we have to be willing to sometimes ask for less than we really want.

At first glance, it would seem that the best way to help animals is to always promote veganism. After all, eating vegan reduces more cruelty than eating vegetarian or cutting back on meat. So it can feel like we are betraying the animals (and maybe even misleading people) if we promote anything less than full veganism in every occasion.

But there is a big difference between how things feel to us and what the real world outcome is for animals. We need to realize that when we’re encouraging dietary change, we’re interacting with human beings. And that means we have to account for human psychology. We need to craft our messaging in a way that accepts how people’s brains actually work, not the way we think they should work.

Consider the following example, putting yourself on the receiving end of an advocacy message.

Imagine that a friend told you driving a car was inherently unethical. After all, cars directly kill over 30,000 people and over 100 million animals a year in the United States alone. Plus, they contribute to global warming, air and water pollution, and lung cancer. So, he tells you, you should sell your car and never drive again. Ever. How do you think you’d respond?

Now imagine the same friend came to you with a slightly more modest proposition: Take public transportation to work on the weekdays instead of driving. How do you think you’d respond to that?

If you’re like most people, you’re a lot more likely to agree to drive less often than you are to give up driving altogether. And if you did start taking public transit to work each day, not only would that do a lot of good, the experience would also make you much more open to eventually giving up your car for good.

The same principles apply when it comes to vegan advocacy.

Right now, the best data from both inside and outside the animal protection movement suggests that using phrases other than “vegan” in our advocacy work is likely to spare more animals from misery (and also to create more vegans, although that’s a side point).

Here are some data points that MFA takes into consideration when deciding which language to use in our advocacy work:

  • A large-scale study of 1,600 people that directly compared the impact of different language in a veg advocacy brochure found that encouraging people to “cut out or cut back on meat” or “eat less meat” created more dietary change and spared more animals than encouraging people to “eat vegan.”

  • A separate study of 640 individuals who were shown photos and text online about factory farm cruelty found that people who were encouraged to “cut out or cut back on meat” and “eat vegetarian” were more likely to want to remove animal products from their diets and to take steps towards doing so than people who were encouraged to “go vegan.”

  • An internal MFA study across hundreds of thousands of visitors to our and websites found that visitors were much more likely to pledge to change their diets, to order a starter guide, and to sign up for a veg eating email series when we used “vegetarian” than when we used “vegan.”

  • Internal reviews by MFA have found that using “vegetarian” instead of “vegan” in advertisements drives more traffic to our vegan eating websites.

  • Recent studies have found that the public still has a much less positive view of vegan eating than vegetarian eating. People view vegan eating as dramatically less healthy, much more difficult, and much less desirable than vegetarian eating. As a result, people are much less open to the idea of adopting a vegan diet than they are to the idea of eating vegetarian.

    This has been borne out in the experience of our volunteers through thousands of outreach events across the country. Focusing on vegan eating often leads to defensive reactions, statements that it’s impossible to be vegan, and less willingness to consider the message. Focusing on vegetarian eating leads to much more positive interactions, more receptivity, and more willingness to try it out.

  • Whether measured by the number of animals impacted, the days of farmed animal suffering endured, or the severity of suffering endured, going vegetarian does nearly 90 percent as much good for farmed animals as going vegan. Further, a large percentage of individuals who go vegetarian later go or try to go vegan. And inspiring an omnivore to go vegetarian appears to be much easier than inspiring one to go vegan.

  • Surveys have repeatedly found that those who reduce their meat consumption are much more likely to go vegetarian, and that those who go vegetarian are much more likely to go vegan. This is consistent with hundreds of studies from the field of social psychology that have found people are much more likely to be persuaded to make a moderate change than they are to make a major change, and that once people make the moderate change they become more open to the larger change.

    So encouraging people to eat less meat, or go vegetarian, doesn’t dissuade them from going vegan. Quite the opposite; it makes people more likely to eventually go vegan.

  • According to the USDA, there are 400 million fewer farmed animals raised and killed each year now than there were in 2007. The vast majority of this decrease is due to meat reducers—people who are not willing to go vegetarian or vegan, but are willing to cut back on how much meat they eat. “Go vegan” messaging appears to turn off the large percentage of people who could, with the right messaging, be persuaded to reduce their meat consumption and spare hundreds of millions more animals.

While the above is not an exhaustive list, it does give a sense of the research we can look to in trying to make the best decisions about pro-veg messaging. It’s because of these sorts of data points that MFA sometimes uses terms such as “vegetarian” or phrases such as “cut out or cut back on meat” in our outreach materials, social media posts, and websites.

We still use the term “vegan” often, and we would love it if we could always use it. It would certainly make our lives easier. But it would not be in the best interest of animals.

Advocating for social change is tricky. It is not as simple as “say what you want and you will get it.” If it were, we would already have a vegan world by now!

We owe it to animals to adopt the strategies and tactics that inspire the most dietary change and spare the greatest number of animals—even if it sometimes feels icky to say “cut back on meat” or “try vegetarian” instead of “go vegan.” If we want to succeed, we have to meet people where they are, always urging them to move further in the right direction, and tailoring each message to each audience based on the best available data.

For more about bringing effective strategies into your animal advocacy work, we highly recommend The Animal Activist's Handbook by Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball, Change of Heart and Veganomics by MFA’s Executive Vice President, Nick Cooney, and by Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan.