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How do different protest tactics and messaging strategies affect attitudes towards animals?

Updated: Mar 22

There are many examples in history of acts of civil disobedience that helped mobilise and energise sufficient numbers of people to usher in changes in public support for causes that previously looked rather hopeless. Many success stories come from issues where, looking back, there was a moral requirement for society to change in order to be in alignment with core values that most people hold. Could animal rights be one such issue? 


After all, the majority of people have empathy for animals and believe that they should be protected and treated with care, yet the majority also contribute to enormous animal suffering by consuming animal products. Moreover, most people agree that climate change is a significant threat, yet they contribute to it with their dietary choices.

Animal Rising has been running a series of protests in the UK since 2023 that aims to raise public awareness and ultimately change public opinion and policies on animal rights. We conducted a randomised controlled trial experiment with 4,757 participants to study how people’s attitudes towards animals are affected by descriptions of different animal rights protests and different messaging strategies. 


Below, we summarise the main findings but encourage you to read the full report and sign up for our upcoming webinar at 4-5pm on Thursday 28 March where we will discuss the implications of our results for animal advocates.


Main results


In this experiment, we tested the effects of three different protest campaign types and three different messaging strategies. The campaign types we considered were horse race disruptions, open animal rescues (where activists remove animals from factory farms etc.), and blockades (where activists blockade access to places (here; a KFC drive-thru). The messaging strategies we considered were values/norms-led (focusing on the compassion that most people have for animals), problem-led (focusing on the animal suffering and climate impacts of animal farming), and solution-led messaging (focusing on the potential solution of a plant-based food system). In the table below, you can see the elements of the stimuli that differentiate the three messaging strategies (shown here for the open rescue condition; all stimuli can be found in the Appendix of the full report).

Norms/values-led


Orla Coughlan, a spokesperson for Animal Rising, said: “Most people would want to rescue an animal in distress, because everyone knows that’s the right thing to do. We all want to be the kind of people who act on our values, and that’s why we rescued these sheep today. Yet, as a society we keep on exploiting and killing animals for food.” 


Coughlan continued: “What we’re asking for is a national conversation about the kind of society we want to be. We believe that as a society we can be better, and live in accordance with the love we have for animals.” 

Problem-led


Orla Coughlan, a spokesperson for Animal Rising, said: “We've broken our natural bond with animals, exploiting them both for fun and for food. It’s this broken relationship that is at the heart of the climate and nature emergency we’re facing. Animal agriculture is a leading cause with up to a fifth of all our emissions coming from the food system.” 


Coughlan continued: “We still breed dogs for harmful experiments, and lock chickens and pigs away in sheds for their whole lives. We cannot afford to carry on like this. Right now, we are doing so much harm to animals and nature.”

Solution-led


Orla Coughlan, a spokesperson for Animal Rising, said: “We liberated these animals today to call for a vegan future that fixes our broken relationship with animals. The solution has to be stopping the harm, whether that’s exploiting animals for fun or exploiting them for food.”  


Coughlan continued: “A plant-based food system is the only reasonable solution to the moral wrong of exploiting and killing animals for food, and it will help us tackle the climate emergency at the same time. Our solution is a much safer, more secure, and more sustainable plant-based food system we can all be proud of.” 

Participants were randomly assigned to either a neutral control condition (a text about fashion), or to one of nine treatment conditions which combined one of the campaigns with one of the messaging strategies (such that approx. the same number of people saw each combination). All treatment stimuli had the following structure: first, an introductory text describing the protest; second, a quote from an Animal Rising spokesperson; third, further details on the protest, and finally an additional Animal Rising spokesperson quote. The quotes differentiated the messaging strategies while the descriptive text differentiated the campaign types. 


First, we evaluated the effects of the experimental conditions on scores on the Animal Solidarity scale, which was developed to quantify people’s “sense of belonging, psychological attachment, and closeness felt toward other animals”. Two main patterns emerged: 1) Reading about a horse race disruption was associated with higher Animal Solidarity scores than the other campaign types, with KFC blockades having the lowest scores. 2) Norms/values-led and problem-led messaging did better than solution-led messaging.



The most favourable combinations therefore were horse race disruptions combined with norms/values-led and problem-led messaging. These were the only two conditions with significantly higher Animal Solidarity scores than the control condition. As shown in the Figure below, five conditions had significantly lower Animal Solidarity scores than the control condition. 




We further assessed how the different experimental conditions affected people’s support for Animal Rising’s main demands, which are:


  1. The UK should move away from animal farming and transition towards an animal-free food system. 

  2. The UK Government should commit to rewild the land and ocean as part of a broader programme of wildlife restoration and carbon drawdown. 

  3. The UK should ban factory farming.

We also assessed the effect on people’s willingness to act, by:


  1. Donating to an animal rights activist group. 

  2. Participating in a peaceful animal rights protest. 

  3. Writing to or phoning your MP about animal welfare.

On those outcome measures, we saw roughly similar results such that KFC blockades and open rescues, especially when combined with solution-led or problem-led messaging tended to have the strongest negative effects. Strikingly, on both of these measures, not a single condition performed better than the control condition. Below, we show the effects of all conditions of interest relative to the control condition on willingness to act, which was affected most negatively by excerpts about animal rights protest overall.





Conclusions


Our results confirm our previous polling results in showing that, in the short term, disruptive animal rights protests may have negative impacts. These extend to people’s attitudes towards animals, their support for changing how we treat animals in society, and their willingness to do something about it. However, we recently published new research which suggests that the initial backlash effects due to disruptive animal rights protests do not last. This means that the effects obtained in the present study should not be taken to mean that real-world protests using the campaign types and messaging strategies we tested would alter public opinion long-term commensurate with the effects we saw here. Such effects appear to be temporary and it is not yet known just how long vs. short-lived they are. However, the differences between conditions provide interesting insights into which kinds of protest tactics and messages can be more or less persuasive for people. Moreover, it appears likely that consistently utilising more vs. less favourable campaigns/messages could have a compounding effect that really matters. Especially in times of frequent protest activity, it seems possible that negative effects due to less effective protest types (such as KFC drive-thru blockades) or messaging strategies (such as solution-led messaging) could compound over time. This possibility seems particularly relevant because for the present study we pre-selected participants (N=4757) who showed above-average concern for animals. Thus, we would have likely seen more strongly negative effects with a representative sample. We hope this research provides useful insights to anyone working in animal advocacy about which messaging strategies and protest tactics might be most useful to pursue in shifting the dial on public opinion towards animal rights. 


If you have any questions or would like to discuss this research further, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.




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