How meat adverts stole our empathy

The intensive animal farming industry works with advertisers to sell misleading and deceptive stories about meat, eggs and dairy, keeping us in a state of ignorance about the food we consume. We need to break free, and to do so we need to recognise how adverts are playing on our own propensity to turn away.

Our new guide, The Cows Aren’t Laughing: decoding the deceit of meat, egg and dairy advertising, explores how advertising hides the harms behind what we eat – and keeps us locked into a diet that’s both cruel and environmentally destructive.

You’re just about to buy some fried chicken, and your friend begins to detail the miserable reality of conditions for intensively farmed chickens. Your instinctive response is probably: “Don’t tell me that.” You worry you won’t be able to enjoy your meal if you know where it’s really come from.

Deep down, most of us probably do have a sense that there is something wrong with how the meat, eggs and dairy we consume is produced. But it’s much easier to look away, and to maintain an emotional distance between ourselves and the animals we eat. We’re never shown the reality, and we’re bombarded with advertising messages that reinforce that dissociation. Why would we want to question the comfortable story we’re told about happy cows in green fields, when it’s so grim and inconvenient to do so? 

M&S advert, 2023

We naturally empathise with other animals. We are familiar with the idea that the UK takes pride in being a nation of animal lovers, and yet, somehow, this has not translated into our shopping habits. Writer and food policy campaigner Rob Percival explores the contradictions between our natural empathy and our consumption of meat in his book ‘The Meat Paradox’. We don’t want to cause animals harm, but we eat them which causes them harm. This feels uncomfortable, so we need ways to resolve this dissonance. Social psychologist Melanie Joy similarly explains that we hate to see animals in pain, so if we want to carry on consuming them we need a set of strategies which enable us to continue supporting the inhumane practices that produce the food we eat. 

Percival and Joy emphasise that it’s not that we don’t care – it’s because we do. When we are exposed to evidence that the animals we eat have suffered, this threatens our identity as a caring omnivore, so we have to construct coping mechanisms to enable us to keep eating animals. Advertising plays a major role in enabling and deepening these strategies, justifying the exploitation of other animals and driving catastrophic levels of consumption. 

Let’s be clear: the weight of responsibility lies with Big Meat, Egg and Dairy, the agribusiness giants who are causing immeasurable suffering and inflicting colossal damage on nature and the climate. The advertising agencies who sell their products using deceptive stories about higher welfare and environmental standards, or with misleading imagery of small, happy farms, are just as culpable.

But we are part of this story too, and we have the power to change it. By understanding how advertising works, and refusing to be misled, we can break free from a system where we support the needless suffering of animals and environmental destruction inherent to intensively farming animals. By recognising how adverts encourage us to deny our natural empathy with other animals, we can rediscover this empathy and help make way for the kinder food system we all need.

The tactics of meat, egg & dairy advertising

Advertisers work with the factory farming industry to spin stories which stop us thinking about our food as having come from real, intelligent living beings. From giant images of meat on billboards to the recent McDonald’s TV advert where no food is featured at all, glossy ads on TV, social media and billboards deliberately prevent us from understanding the true costs of the food we buy, and enable the destructive and cruel intensive farming industry to continue.

Where adverts do make an association between our food and an animal, we need to be encouraged to see the animal as an object to be consumed, or to believe that they live happy lives and are even willing to be exploited or killed to become our food. Examples include the Anchor cows who work in the dairy, happily loading boxes of butter onto trucks, or KFC’s dancing chicken advert that shows healthy chickens dancing to rap. Arla’s “Everybody’s Free” ad featuring cows roaming in green fields states that “It’s all about freedom, like our cows who are free to graze and enjoy the country air“. Arla’s supply chain includes zero grazing dairy farms, with cows that never go outside.

Anchor TV ad, 2011

We are also commonly given the impression by adverts that our food comes from small family farms, when in reality, the dominance of huge multinational meat, egg and dairy companies leaves genuine small farmers with less independence and fewer options, driving them out of business or into intensification; and workers in the meat industry often endure poor conditions and low pay.

End meat advertising

In our new guide, The Cows Aren’t Laughing: decoding the deceit of meat, egg and dairy advertising, we uncover these tactics and more, and look at what we can do to challenge them – including calling on our MPs to end meat and dairy advertising.

If we can get rid of the advertising noise that surrounds us, telling us to keep consuming meat, dairy and eggs, we can make more informed choices about what we eat, and help shift to a kinder, more environmentally-friendly plant-based food system.

Artwork by Lindsay Grime

Watch our video, read our guide and take action. You can also read more in Plant Based News and Marketing Beat.

“Inherent in violent ideologies is an implicit contract between producer and consumer to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. Sure, animal agribusinesses go to great lengths to protect their secrets. But we make their job easy for them. They tell us not to look, and we turn away. They tell us that the billions of animals that we never see live outdoors on peaceful farms, and as illogical as this is, we don’t question it. We make their job easy because on some level most of us don’t want to know the way things really are.” – Melanie Joy

What else can I do to support a shift to a kinder food system?

  • Call on governments to stop funding marketing campaigns which promote meat and dairy consumption – like the 2020 Milk Your Moments campaign – and instead back initiatives to encourage greater consumption of foods which scientists tell us we need to eat more of, like vegetables.
  • Support measures to disincentivise meat and dairy consumption such as tobacco-style warning labels on meat.
  • Demand an end to meat and dairy subsidies, which would help level the playing field between animal-based and plant-based food, and mean the true costs of meat and dairy are reflected in the price we pay, and shift away from the idea that meat is cheap and should be eaten every day.
  • Call on banks to stop investing in colossal and destructive meat giants like JBS.

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