Two new studies examine the impact of shocking photos and video on outreach efforts.

A decade later, the photograph still haunts me. I had recently gone vegan and was looking for ways to turn my newfound passion into action when I received an email from Humane Society International about the annual slaughter of seals in Canada. Accompanying the message was a particularly gruesome image that showed the bloody bodies of dozens of freshly skinned seals scattered across the frozen landscape. Near the bottom of the photo, pondering this horrible scene, was a lone seal who had managed to escape the carnage. What must she be thinking? I wondered. Was she looking for her mother? A friend? Some answer to what had happened—and why? A few years later when I addressed in my book and in talks the role upsetting images can play in activist burnout, this was the photo that occupied my consciousness and kept me awake at night.

Not that such images don’t have a place in animal activism; they certainly do. Vivid pictures from factory farms, slaughterhouses, canned hunts, research labs, fur farms, and the like reflect society’s mistreatment of animals. They are important markers in our ignoble history. But as the animal rights movement matures—along with technology and social media—and discusses how best to frame its message to the public, the use of potentially off-putting images has become a hot topic. How and when should we use photos and videos with graphic detail in our quest to change consumer behavior? Evidence shows the repulsive approach is working in the anti-tobacco campaign, for instance, where cigarette cartons carrying images of diseased lungs are more effective at delivering the anti-smoking message than any blithe warning from the Surgeon General ever could.

Photos vs. Video

Photo: FARM

Last month, the results of two studies on the use of images in vegan outreach—each with apparently conflicting conclusions—were released. One study, conducted with funding assistance from the nonprofit FARM, showed three different photos to survey participants: one with a low level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a muddy slaughterhouse floor), one with a medium level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a bloody slaughterhouse floor), and one with a high degree of graphic detail (a dead pig with his throat slit on a bloody slaughterhouse floor). Each image’s effect on attitudes toward animal rights was measured using the Wuensch animal rights scale: a high score indicates positive attitudes toward animal rights, and a low score indicates negative attitudes toward animal rights. As explained in this FARM blog, “the low graphic detail image was the most effective, the moderate graphic detail image was less effective, and the high graphic detail image was the least effective, although this effect was not statistically significant. What this means is that, though the images affected attitudes towards animal rights to different degrees, there’s about a 15% chance we could have gotten this result even if the images had no effect.”

The second study, conducted by the Humane Research Council (HRC) on behalf of VegFund, asked people between the ages of 15 and 23 to watch vegetarian/vegan outreach videos and then complete a survey. Following the popular pay-per-view outreach model, each participant received $1.00 to watch one of four short videos. The videos were:

  • Farm to Fridge (Mercy For Animals): An intensely graphic appeal to ethics/compassion using footage of farmed-animal abuse sourced mostly from undercover investigations.
  • Maxine’s Dash for Freedom (Farm Sanctuary): An appeal to ethics/compassion by telling the story of a cow who escaped slaughter and was rescued.
  • A Life Connected (Nonviolence United): An appeal for consumers to connect with concerns about the impact of factory farming on animals, the environment, and/or human health.
  • Geico Couple (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine): An appeal to health concerns by telling the story of a couple who adopted a vegan diet and successfully lost weight.

After watching the video, participants were asked questions about what they learned; if they wanted more information about eating vegetarian or vegan; about their current levels of meat, dairy, and egg consumption; and whether they intended to reduce consumption of any animal products. In contrast to the study carried out with partial funding from FARM, the HRC survey found that graphic images had the biggest impact, with the grisly candor of Farm to Fridge resulting in 36 percent of participants saying they were considering a reduction of the animal products they consume—that is an average of 7 percent better than the other, much less graphic, videos, even though viewers on average were only able to endure 78 percent of Mercy For Animals’ video.

There Will Be Blood

Photo: Mercy For Animals

Based on these results, it’s tempting to conclude that when it comes to photographs, milder images rule, while shocking depictions of animal abuse are more effective in videos. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

“I think the FARM study is a bit flawed in how it was created, the questions asked, and the images selected,” says Mercy For Animals founder Nathan Runkle. The study measured attitudes about animal rights, for example, and didn’t ask if the image changed their perception of animal agriculture or prompted a behavioral change—such as going vegan. “The HRC study did that,” says Nathan. “It looked at behavioral change, which is really what is most important to animal advocates. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who says they want to see graphic images, but those who do see them often show more behavioral change.” Nathan says the controversial use of violent images reminds him of this—and every—presidential election. “Voters claim to be tired of and turned off by negative ads. But politicians continue to use them year after year, because they work.”

While Nathan concedes the images used in the first study are upsetting, he doesn’t believe they necessarily depict cruelty. “All three images showed an animal who was already dead,” he says. “In my opinion, that doesn’t show cruelty in a graphic light, since the animals are already dead and unable to be experiencing pain. So, you can see how in this study what is considered ‘graphic’ is already open to debate.”

Studies aside, animal advocates agree graphic images work. “Doing outreach in person, I like graphic movies in a pay-per-view or classroom setting, if you can get a teacher to show Farm to Fridge,” says Chris Van Breen, who gauges the impact in part by the comments he receives. “I have had complaints such as, ‘You should have warned me. Now I can never eat meat again. If I knew that’s what that video was, I would not have watched it.’” He’s gotten similar responses while distributing graphic leaflets. One recipient told him, “You should not be handing these out. I got that leaflet last week and have not eaten meat since then. It made me sick.” Hmm. Sounds like a winning strategy to me.

“After being a long-time vegetarian, it was ultimately seeing footage of factory farming that made me go vegan,” says Jasmin Singer, co-founder (with Mariann Sullivan) of Our Hen House. “So, yes, I think the graphic imagery works in a lot of cases. I just don’t think it necessarily will always draw people in, which is the catch-22.”

The Middle Way

“I tend to take a middle ground,” writes Doris Lin on her About.com guide on animal rights. “Probably the most graphic image I’ve published is this one of a whale being butchered in Japan. I believe that graphic images can convey a message that no words can, but I am cautious about their use. The whale is dimly lit, and the photo is from a distance, which lessens some of the horror of the scene.” A survey of readers on her page suggests that most people agree graphic imagery—provided it’s used thoughtfully—has its place in the movement.

Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur/www.weanimals.org

“I think they both work,” says Jo-Anne McArthur, whose photographs of oppressed and rescued animals can be both haunting and beautiful. “It depends on the viewer. Just as one person will see a graphic image and make a positive change based on the experience of seeing it, another person will turn their eyes from it. We are all affected by different images and therefore different tactics, which is why a variety of tactics is crucial to creating change, as history has shown in all movements.” Graphic images move some people and not others, Jo-Anne observes, but they must be part of the movement, along with softer images and softer messages, academia, sanctuaries, letter writing, public demos, leafleting—all of it. She offers an example: “When I went veg, difficult and graphic images helped me to do so. Tim Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds, was undercover at a slaughterhouse for six months and still didn’t go veg! But when he did, it was after he met a rescued cow at Woodstock sanctuary.”

Jasmin sees the logic in this. “I personally have a difficult time believing that your average meat-eating Joe would click on a graphic image to look for more—but, according to these studies, I am wrong. The thing is, I am actually not wrong—but neither are they. Because posting ‘cute, fuzzy kitten’ photos—or their farmed animal equivalent—also works, right? I think in that instance, the important part would be the messaging, which would obviously need to be incredibly compelling and strategic.” That’s a point Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, also stresses. “Right now, there are many images of human-caused animal suffering on the Internet,” she says, “but if they are not matched by a passionate verbal message—not necessarily or always exactly where the images are being shown, but as the overall ethical language and context—it seems likely that most people seeing them will say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ but will not connect what they are looking at with personal responsibility or action. I also think that images of animals suffering and abject need to be in contrast to images of these same animals living in happiness—images that are not just ‘postcard’ pretty, but expressive, evocative, and moving.”

Again, Karen and Jasmin are in agreement here. “Sometimes,” says Jasmin, “it’s the happy stuff that packs more of a punch, because—as in my case—the viewer says, ‘LOOK WHAT WE ARE TAKING AWAY FROM THEM!’ The most heartbreaking thing for me about VINE Sanctuary in Vermont, for example, is that many of the chickens choose to sleep in the trees, even in the winter, even though it’s so hideously cold there.” (This natural environment is in stark contrast to the filthy, industrial conditions billions of chickens are raised and confined in every year for their flesh and eggs.)

Indeed, in addition to showing animals suffering, it’s essential they are portrayed as individuals so we don’t promote the concept of them as commodities, says lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project. “If we only show them suffering, we’re not showing them enjoying some semblance of a normal life,” she says. “Take ivory, for example. If you only show images of dead elephants with their tusks cut off, it affects people because we’ve all seen images of these animals walking on the savanna. Most people have a better understanding of them in a more normal situation than, say, most people do of animals like chickens.” lauren, who has taken more than her share of upsetting undercover video, believes explicit images play a crucial role in showing people how animals raised for food are treated. “Though I do tend to worry that focusing on what some might view as extreme scenes of abuse—which we know are possibly routine—might detract more than help.” A better approach, she says, are depictions of abuse that cannot be disputed, such as animals in confinement and even the mutilations inflicted on them (beak searing, tail docking, de-horning, etc.).

The last word on images has yet to be uttered—and likely never will. We can count on further discussion and more studies as the movement hones its methods and message. But for the moment, grim depictions, particularly scenes from undercover videos, seem to hold sway. Adds Nathan: “As I said before, no consumer will tell you they want to see graphic images, but the fact remains that they are undoubtedly effective in changing attitudes and behaviors. Graphic images, which are hard to ignore and impossible to forget, create an emotional connection to the issue and raise ethical discussions, and these things impact consumer behavior.”