Mixed messages: meat ads in Veganuary mislead and delay

This January you might spot a series of sleek new adverts for BRITISH BEEF, BRITISH LAMB and BRITISH MILK, voiced by Richard Ayoade. The fast-paced ads, which promote a very different message to Veganuary, are across social media, TV, print, in shops and even cinemas. 

Let’s Eat Balanced” is an advertising campaign by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), a non-governmental organisation that is an Arm’s Length Body (ALB) of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

The ads are the latest rework of AHDB’s controversial £3.5million “We Eat Balanced” campaign, made by BP’s advertising agency, Ogilvy. According to the AHDB, the ad campaigns are “aimed at people who were looking to reduce the amount of meat and dairy they consumed”.

In this blog we take a look at these ads and how they are a case study for many of the issues we raised in our recent report, The Cows Aren’t Laughing: decoding the deceit of meat and dairy advertising

What’s wrong with meat and dairy advertising?

To be clear, we don’t want to denigrate farmers who work hard to put food on our plates. The plain fact is that moving away from animal farming is necessary to free up land for nature and carbon sequestration, and to reduce the emissions, pollution, water and land use and biodiversity costs of eating animals (including those farmed in the UK) which are far higher than for plant-based foods.

In the UK, intensive farming is also on the rise, with thousands of “mega farms” and animals kept in terrible conditions, raising ethical concerns as well as causing pollution, increasing the risks of antimicrobial resistance and supporting deforestation in the Amazon through soy-based feed.

Advertising that promotes more consumption of animal products, wherever they are farmed, is taking us in entirely the wrong direction. This type of advertising entrenches animal farming in our diets, just when we need to be building public support for a move towards more plant-based diets, eliminating intensive farming, and supporting farmers to transition away from livestock production wherever possible. 

The UK Government’s National Food Strategy recommends a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2032 compared to 2019, but analysis of UK eating patterns suggests that progress is far too slow. 

There’s work to be done to make alternatives to meat and dairy more affordable and socially accepted; however, removing advertising that normalises, greenwashes and hides the impacts of farming animals is a logical step towards reducing the amount of animal products we produce and consume. 

An illustration showing a billboard advertising dairy foods featuring a cow in a green field and the slogan Happy Cows, Happy Planet! Behind the billboard shows the reality for cows in the dairy industry, cramped into windowless sheds
Artwork by Lindsay Grime. Read our report: The Cows Aren’t Laughing: Decoding the Deceit of Meat and Dairy Advertising.

Let’s Eat Balanced: typical tropes in meat and dairy advertising.

Normalise

Just like burger ads that saturate social media, newspapers, online sites, TV and billboards in our towns and cities, these adverts normalise beef, lamb and milk. Back-to-back footage of smiling people eating lamb skewers, beef steak, milk and yoghurt leaves no room for critique.   

When something is normalised so completely, it’s difficult to question it. What could be wrong with eating meat and dairy, when it is advertised all the time, everywhere? Advertising is causing confusion and holding us back from the change that needs to happen in our agricultural systems.  

A billboard seen at the end of a row of houses. The board carries an ad for McDonalds.

Greenwash

In the “British Dairy” advert, imagery of cows grazing in rolling fields greenwashes milk production. While most cows in the UK have access to grass, an estimated 20% are reared in zero-grazing lots, locked indoors for the entirety or most of their lives – not such a pretty picture for advertising, meaning we are kept in the dark about how animals are treated. 

The green, sunlit fields in the Let’s Eat Balanced ads epitomise a common greenwashing tactic known as nature rinsing. Marketing research has found that nature imagery elicits pleasant feelings and prompts viewers to perceive an advertiser’s brand more positively. In these ads, beef, lamb and dairy are associated with idealised imagery of British countryside that is emotive and comforting, while the costs to wildlife and the environment embedded in many forms of animal agriculture are hidden.  

Bottom left: image from a 2022 Viva! investigation into zero-grazing dairy units. Lea Manor farm supplies Müller, an AHDB member.

Healthwash

A major theme of the “Let’s Eat Balanced” adverts is health. The ads display a range of nutrients including iron, calcium and Vitamin B12, with beef, lamb and dairy touted as “a natural source of this”. Richard Ayoade’s voice signs off each advert with the phrase “Enjoy the goodness”. 

Tapping into narratives around health is common in meat and dairy advertising. The AHDB have specifically stated that the We Eat Balanced and Let’s Eat Balanced ad campaigns are designed to improve consumer perceptions of meat and dairy, including via health messaging that “reassures” people to eat meat.

AHDB Director of Marketing Liam Byrne said: “The campaign has played an important part in helping counteract the sensationalist headlines by helping to position the positive role that red meat and dairy from Britain can play as part of a healthy and sustainable diet.”

While the debate over the health impacts of different dietary choices rages on, a large body of peer reviewed scientific research has found that diets with a higher proportion of (unprocessed) plant-based foods and a lower proportion of animal products are healthier and reduce incidence of conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular illness and some cancers (e.g. Gibbs and Carpuccio, 2022, Key et al. 2022).  

Public money for climate delay

There are many reasons that the AHDB, which acts on behalf of its members, including UK farmers and suppliers, wishes to improve perceptions of British meat and dairy. However, the fact remains that demand for meat, dairy and eggs must fall and our agricultural systems, in the UK and abroad, must move away from farming animals for planetary and human health and to avoid the slaughter of billions of animals each year.

It’s worth noting that this is a wider issue than influencing consumer perceptions: advertising from the AHDB, a key industry player, is a typical strategy to reframe meat and dairy as more favourable in order to influence and delay policy – a tactic heavily used by tobacco and fossil fuel industries.

Rather than spending millions of pounds on advertising campaigns, paid for by AHDB levies that are classed as public money, AHDB and government should be supporting farmers and consumers in this transition. 

What about advertising regulation?

Lastly, these ads show up the failure of the current system of advertising regulation to rein in advertising’s environmental harms. The remit of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is limited to acting on misleading claims, harm and offence, and other advertising Codes of practice.

To support sustainable behaviour change, including in what we eat and how we travel, we need a ban on advertising that promotes products that have outsized emissions and cause environmental harm.

Thanks for reading this blog. Read our report, The Cows Aren’t Laughing, for more on the tactics used by advertisers to sell meat, dairy and eggs. You can find more information about the AHDB and its misleading narratives around meat via DeSmog. As always, we appreciate your support and welcome any feedback – you can reach us on hello[at]adfreecities.org.uk.

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