A discussion of the online campaign Februdairy and some of the reasons it backfired.
With the recent surge in popularity of plant based alternatives to cow’s milk and the record uptake of Veganuary, the dairy industry decided to take matters into it’s own hands and launch a campaign aiming to promote dairy to the public for the month of February. This caught some international headlines early on, but it swiftly became evident for the promoters that this mostly online campaign was backfiring in spectacular fashion. Now February has passed, if you search #Februdairy on twitter where the majority of the debate has taken place, you’ll find that the top tweets are almost all written by vegans, so while the industry promoted the Februdairy tag, those searching it will find little else but anti-industry messages from vegans.
Those of us who have been advocating online for some time were unsurprised by this, in fact the only thing that really shocked us about this was that the industry thought it was ever going to work. Despite the fact that vegans are a minority online, we are a very vocal minority, and we have managed to dominate discussions like this online for the last two or three years, regardless of which platform they take place on. Part of the reason for this is obvious, the strongest demographic for vegans is young people, and young people tend to be far more adept at social networking and online campaigning than the older generation are, which is the generation which most farmers seem to belong to. It isn’t just vegans who are wise to the lies of the industry either, over the past few years there has been a well documented reduction in demand for dairy from young people, who are becoming more and more aware of the treatment involved and of the bogus health claims the industry has relied on for so many years. All of this combined meant that the industry was fighting a losing battle on this campaign from start to finish, and it is unlikely any such campaign will be attempted again in the near future.
The thing that I and many other advocates found so surprising about the campaign is that it wasn’t focused on the taste of dairy, of spreading recipes and making special offers for the purchasing of dairy, which may have been more effective, it was instead focused on “openness” and showing the public what happens on dairy farms. The issue with this became clear in all of the early TV interviews featuring dairy farmers debating with the likes of Joey Carbstrong, the dairy farmers could present a case for local farming, but were unwilling to answer basic questions about what happens to male calves, or what happens to cows when their milk production begins to slow. When these question were eventually answered in later interviews, the public understandably did not like the answers. The issue is that transparency has always been anathema to the meat and dairy industries, they are utterly dependent upon the public not knowing what happens to the animals they exploit. They could invite the public to see the cute calves and animals roaming in fields, but there are questions which would always be uncomfortable to answer, and because the industry refused to provide these answers, vegan advocates stepped in to answer for them, and we could do so with the video footage and industry statistics to prove it. Out of sight really is out of mind, and it was unwise for the industry themselves to encourage the public to really look at what it is that farmers are doing.
As part of the campaign, the industry set up a website called TellitLikeitis, advertising as “the vitally important story of dairy nutrition and health.” The campaign aimed to give the public greater transparency about dairy, but it is revealing that the website they established focused almost exclusively on nutrition, which was wise considering that the truth of industry treatment of cows is not one which would work in their favours. That the statistics shared on the website relied on studies performed by the Dairy Council will be no surprise, but activists quickly took advantage of the conspicuous lack of any discussion on ethics. Almost immediately after publication, TellitLikeitReallyis, an almost clone copy of the website but run in direct opposition, but sharing the truth on dairy and health, as well as the treatment of cows in the industry. That only one of these two opposing websites meaningfully discussed treatments and procedures was a disaster for the industry, and one they never meaningfully attempted to rectify. The problem is, that the industry was left with the impossible task of trying to run a campaign about transparency in the industry, while not actually being able to share their practices, procedures and treatment, since they knew that information would work against them.
Though the industry had promised open dialogue and transparency, it quickly became clear that vegans asking questions of the organisers and main industry participants were blocked on mass. This became such a commonality that it became a joke among the community, and a seperate tag emerged on twitter, #BlockedByBovidiva. Vegans were blocked not only for attacking the industry, but for asking legitimate questions like “what happens to male calves in the industry?” Legitimate questions or criticisms were met not with the open discussion that was originally promised, but with censorship. It didn’t seem to matter how politely the objection was phrased, the industry was not interested in entertaining any opposing views whatsoever, no matter where they came from.
Opposing views can be censored, industry sponsored studies can be shared, farmers can be very selective about which part of the process they show and which parts they leave out, but the more pressing issue that the industry will never be able to overcome is that there is no moral argument for the consumption of animal products. There are pragmatic arguments, practical ones, and there are possible answers for why it is okay to consume animal products, but these are justifications, not moral arguments in favour, and those are very different things. You can make an argument for why it isn’t immoral to consume animals, however poor, but to convincingly argue that eating animals and their excretions is morally superior to abstaining from them is a very difficult thing. It is rare in any form of debate that someone will attempt to put forward a moral argument for consumption as opposed to an argument which attempts to defend against a vegan argument. The only real exception is that supporting animal products supports farmers and their family, but in the context of Februdairy when this argument was made it was made by the farmers themselves, asking the public to give them money, which appeared blatantly self-interested.
It is because of this lack of any coherent moral argument for consuming animal products that the industry front groups will always be on the defensive, and Ferbrudairy provided vegan activists with a platform to force the industry to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. It gave us a publicly promoted tag for us to show people who would not morally engage with us what actually happens to animals in the dairy industry, and it wasn’t long before activists made very effective use of this opportunity. If anything, it is likely that Februadairy actually harmed public perceptions of the industry rather than improve them, as seen in tweets like this one:
The truth is that the industry functions best when under the radar, when the consumption of animal products remains something that consumers never really seriously consider the moral validity of. Whenever the industry make a public defence of the morality of consuming any animal product, it inadvertently highlights the consumption of animal products as a moral issue, as something which requires a moral defence. What the industry consistently fails to realise is that most people do not ever really stop to assess the morality of animal products; these are things we consume out of habit and tradition, not because we sat down one day and decided that it was the most moral thing to do. The more the industry tries to tell consumers that consuming animal products is the best choice, the more they draw attention to the fact that this consumption is a choice, and one that isn’t in any way a necessity. When they debate with vegans, they give us a platform and show the world that you can be happy and healthy without consuming any of their products. More fundamentally, they show the world that there is a debate on whether or not these products are ethical, which is something that has literally never occurred to so many people.
There are lessons we can learn as advocates from the failure of Februdairy and the success of the vegan response to it. Hyperbolic claims put forward by vegans or those that were factually inaccurate, such as the idea that the industry calls the artificial insemination device a “rape rack” were quickly debunked by those running the campaign, as were assertions of how “all” cows or “all” calves are subjected to specific practices, since farmers could simply show that this doesn’t happen on their specific farm and regardless of how common that practice was, it looked like the vegan was being dishonest. The most effective attacks on the industry were ones relying on common practices, ones farmers knew they could not deny. The fact that calves are usually separated from their mothers, the fact that dairy cows almost always go to slaughter and sharing real images of this happening gained the most online traction. Equally, asking questions of the industry and showing their unwillingness to answer was a key tactic which was employed to great effect, as some advocates were very aware of where the sore spots were for farmers and which questions they’d likely not want t discuss. The conspicuous silence of farmers, or them falling into the trap of blocking those asking these questions, which activists could then screenshot, showed the public that there was really no good answer to any of these questions.
The problem with our community has always been how disjointed it is, great activism is being done, but it is usually happening separately and in isolation. Februdairy should stand as an example to us all as to what vegans can achieve when we band together, collaborate and attack the industry with one unified voice. It was truly inspiring to see experienced vegans come to the defence of newer vegans when they were presented with a point they couldn’t answer, and smaller accounts having their messages promoted by those with a much larger following. The response to Februdairy was an amazing example of what we can do as a community when we focus our efforts outwards rather than inwards, and all work to together to engage the wider community, rather than writing, blogging and advocating in our own separate echo chambers.
Februdairy shouldn’t stop now that February is over, it should be a rallying cry for vegans everywhere, to put aside the internal bickering, collaborate and move against the industry with one voice. There is much we disagree on among ourselves, but if there is one thing which unites us it is our unequivocal belief in the rights of animals, and the knowledge that if we do not come together to speak on their behalf, then no one will.