Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why not use Good Arguments PETA?

The above advert was produced by PETA and attempts to demonstrate that people should turn to vegetarianism because consuming meat is potentially fatal. The poster was produced after the death of a Scottish women and her unborn child during the Swine flu outbreak 6 years ago where people who came into contact - usually by eating contaminated meat - with infected animals fell ill and in a lot of cases died.

What is especially bad about this advert is that it attempts to appeal to the peripheral processing route by using a short and loaded message that grabs the attention. However, deciding whether or not to change to vegetarianism or veganism is a deeply personal choice and one that requires a lot of thought (i.e. use of central route processing), simply highlighting the various bad things that eating meat can lead to is not a particularly persuasive method of advertisement when you are advertising a complete change in lifestyle. Multiple powerful arguments have to be used and be relevant to the viewer if they are to engage with it. The "argument" used in the above banner is neither particularly powerful or relevant considering such outbreaks of animal-to-human disease are rare.

Indeed, for this advert and for the most part all PETA adverts to not be terrible, the entire way the poster is designed must be changed to appeal to central route processing successfully. One way to do this is by employing 'empathy', so people feel more aligned with the suffering experienced by animals and understand that such suffering is both gratuitous and needless.

Archer et al. (1979) conducted one such study on empathy and how it might influence a change in behaviour and attitude. In the experiment a 'Mock Trial' was set up with participants acting as jurors. The background to the trial was described to the participants so they had an understanding of the case beforehand and from that point the trial proceeded as if it were the real thing with the prosecution and defence giving their cases and presenting evidence. Following the prosecution's case the defence initiated their case with one of two appeal-manipulations, either the Imagine-self Appeal or Listen-to-facts Appeal. These were the two primary experimental conditions tested.

In the Imagine-Self Appeal participants were told to focus on how they would feel if subjected to the same experience as the defendant; in the Listen-to-facts Appeal they were told just to assess and consider the facts presented. Also in the judge's closing statement, either a 'Fact-Focus' (reminder to be as objective as possible) or 'No Fact-Focus' condition was reinforced. The participants then went off and rated on a 9 point scale from lawful to unlawful their assessment of the defendants action and proceeded to judge the defendant guilty or not guilty.

They found that when only the imagine-self appeal was enforced and no other manipulation was in play, participants attributed less causality to the defendant for his actions and rated his actions as more lawful than in the other conditions. These results can be seen in the figure above. By making the jurors focus on the defendant and place themselves in his position at the time of the incident, the defence implicitly call for the jury to empathize with the defendant and as a result of employing such a technique the participants were more likely to be motivated by the account given by the person whom they were empathizing with.

It can therefore be seen that empathy is a particularly effective persuasive tactic. So it would be better for PETA's marketing campaign to draw our attention to the suffering animals undergo at the hands of humans in the meat industry and invoke empathy along these lines, rather than just trying to use shock tactics and techniques that don't portray the positives of turning vegetarian. By employing strong arguments for vegetarianism - of which there are numerous - and using persuasive methods like eliciting empathy the adverts PETA produce like the one above will become a lot more effective.

And as an aside, the context in which PETA put up such posters and other advertisements is better off being uncontroversial instead of the confrontational style they currently use which only gets them bad press and weakens their overall image and subsequently the message they are trying to present.


Archer, R. L., Foushee, H. C., Davis, M. H., & Aderman, D. (1979). Emotional Empathy in a Courtroom Simulation: A PersonSituation Interaction1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 9(3), 275-291.

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