A recent study of non-vegans, reported in The Independent by Rachel Hosie reveals that the holier-than-thou attitudes of vegans to meat-eaters put some omnivores off going vegan or vegetarian. This may hold lessons for organisations running social marketing campaigns designed to get folk to make lifestyle changes for their personal benefit or the greater good.

Whether it’s wearing seat belts, recycling waste, using energy-efficient light bulbs or cutting back on fossil fuel use, some people get the message first time round. Over time, as the behaviour changing messages are repeated, reheated and re-served, those who haven’t responded tend to move from being disinterested, to being passively resistant to change. Some then become hostile and actively opposed to change, a stance that can be reinforced by the ability to form alliances of the aggrieved on social media.

We all know smokers who would prefer to die coughing and others who don’t give a fig about the environment, despite the growing crescendo of messages calling for behaviour change. Indeed the hostility of poorly educated, white working class voters to ‘urban elites’ telling them how to live their lives, is attributed by some commentators as a major factor in the election of Donald Trump.

Veganism is slightly different to these examples. There is no overwhelming social or scientific consensus that if the world went meat-free, it would be better for human health, animals or the environment. Not that this deters the promoters of veganism, some of whom appear to be becoming more vociferous in their campaigning.

A positive outcome is the growing number of restaurants that have vegan and vegetarian food options on their menus. But there is a big downside to the campaign – a growing blowback from omnivores who have become hostile to the pro-vegan message and those communicating it.

The study reported by The Independent was undertaken by VoucherCodesPro, involving 2363 Britons aged 18 and over. It found that 26 per cent of meat-eaters are discouraged from giving up meat and/or all animal products due to “the attitude of certain vegetarians/vegans.”

And when quizzed on exactly why, the top responses were: “they were quite aggressive to those eating meat” (37 per cent) and “they consider their way of eating to be the only way.”

There were four other reasons that were more influential in putting omnivores off going vegetarian or vegan but the aggressiveness of vegans rings a warning bell for social marketers. Perhaps the message that vegan activists are slow to learn is that lecturing to, patronising, or being actively hostile to those you wish to change, is a recipe for failure.

Clearly New Zealand’s road safety campaigners learnt this axiom long ago. They have wrought major changes in seemingly entrenched societal attitudes to drink driving through their deft use of humour and cultural touch stones … ‘Drinking? – Legends don’t drive’ … in their social marketing campaigns.

In contrast, vegans in the UK last year ran a high profile Go Vegan campaign which carried the underlying message that if you eat meat or dairy, you are a murderer. Its launch media release said humans’ maltreatment of animals was the “greatest tragedy the world had ever seen”. The campaign aimed to “cast a light into the hidden, dark world of human predation on defenceless others”.

It didn’t work.

In a survey of 2023 Britons who had not seen pro-vegan campaigns before the Go Vegan campaign, 54 per cent said they were less likely to become vegan after being exposed to two of the campaign advertisements. Just 7 per cent said they might consider turning vegan.

In WHAM’s view the failure of vegans to connect with the majority of the population is largely because the campaigns and messaging are devised by committed vegans, usually driven by the force of moral righteousness.

This contrasts with (say) road safety campaigners trying to change attitudes to drink driving. They are driven by rational impulses to achieve a socially desirable outcome and they hire professionals to devise their campaigns, usually based on sound research.

For many of those who want to change the behaviours that drive climate change, child poverty or poor public health, the challenge is to stay in the road safety camp – research-based, dispassionate and professional, ideally with a touch of humour.

Your cause may indeed have a moral dimension, but that’s the last thing you should be communicating to those who may not share your world view. At the very least you may have to fight accusations that you want a “nanny state”. At worst, you may entrench the very behaviours that you wish to change.

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