Forget Billboards and Bus Ads. Give me Grassroots.

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Celebrity endorsements. Multi(hundred)-thousand dollar campaigns. Slogans. Elaborate billboards. Posters in public places. Ads on buses. Press agents. Spokespeople. Fundraising. Whispers of private donors.

I know what you’re thinking. The large animal orgs, right? CEOs in boardrooms cooking up the latest campaign to splash their President’s picture all over the newspapers, snag that spot on the hottest talk show in town.

Wrong. This is what now passes for grassroots advocacy.

Sure, advertising campaigns can look appealing, be highly visible, and get the word “vegan” into the public domain. But haven’t the animal orgs been using the same tactics for decades in order to push whatever the message du jour was?

Advertising campaigns (purportedly or actually) promoting veganism have been used for years by groups that ultimately support a New Welfarist message or that are otherwise hostile to or misrepresent abolitionism. They’ve often been used to push animal rights issues in a way that perpetuates human oppression. They have at times appeared to promote veganism as a moral imperative while linking to sites, groups, or advocates that deny that veganism is such. Decades of such tactics tell us that not only are these campaigns confusing at best, they’re only remembered when they’re controversial or damaging.

And, in the age of the internet, with the ability to send messages across the world in a matter of seconds across a range of social media platforms, isn’t forking over large sums of money to put pictures and slogans in public places (when there’s no proven advantage over other forms of spreading a message) somewhat redundant?

You see, when I see a billboard or a bus ad, I don’t automatically think of ethical principles or social justice movements. I think of mobile phone networks, beer, cowboys with cigarettes dangling from their lips, perfume. I think of commodities that are bought on a whim because the advertisement suggests that you’ll be more attractive, more productive, happier if you’ll throw some money that way…until the next appealing advert with someone else’s suggestion of what you should buy takes your fancy. That we’re starting to think of vegan education along the same lines demonstrates our confusion about what it is that makes someone vegan, and our lack of awareness about how advocacy works.

True grassroots activism requires informed advocates, with an understanding of the history of ideas in their movement and of the obstacles they may and do face, taking to the streets locally to inspire and inform. True behavioural change will only come about on an interpersonal level, and the most important part of any learning experience is dialogue. This is why, even in distance learning courses, we still facilitate the students’ discussion of the topics they’re learning by providing them with tutors. Certainly, someone seeing a vegan advertisement may seek out further information to educate themselves, but we can’t guarantee that their Google search, if they can’t remember the URL, won’t lead them to a site that wrongly informs them that vegetarianism or meat reduction are equally morally acceptable. A pamphlet or a slogan can never be a substitute for the power of human contact to effect conceptual change.

Corporate advocacy on veganism can never and will never work when so many resources are being filtered into promoting those things against which veganism is a form of protest. We’ve already heard stories of how certain campaigns had to “tone down” their message in order to pass planning permission, and there’s no way a partnership with a public body can ever create true political change in this arena. Attempting to buy space to air our views will only ever result in a compromised message.

But far more worrying than all of this is that such high-profile, costly advertising perpetuates the perception that veganism suffers from a class problem. Not only does it suggest to activists that activism requires a significant amount of funding, thereby disempowering those without access to such funds, but it also tends to take place in areas that are more affluent. Pay for a billboard in the financial district, but don’t be surprised if this ends up reinforcing the idea that veganism is only for those with money. If you have significant financial resources at your disposal and want to do something with them to effect real change for both humans and animals, sponsor a vegan food truck, or get behind those groups already on the ground trying to bring nutritious food and an unequivocal vegan message to low-income neighbourhoods.

If we want a vegan world, we need a nonviolent revolution, and money will never buy that. We need to be out on the streets, talking to people from our hearts. We don’t need to obtain the approval of town planners or corporate agencies in order to present our message in the way that we see fit.

If you’re an advocate and are feeling that your bunch of leaflets and your small fold-up table are just not good enough, remember this: true education requires teachers. Educate yourself and then educate others; no amount of money can buy the heart and mind that you can use to change those of others.

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