[Ed. Note: FBR = Foundation for Biomedical Research. From their website: "Established in 1981, the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) is the nation's oldest and largest organization dedicated to improving human and veterinary health by promoting public understanding and support for humane and responsible animal research."... We ask: "How humane and responsible can it be to confine animals of many species in unnatural, restricted laboratories and do experiments on them that cause pain, injury, distress and eventual death and that do NOT produce healthy results that help human beings?"]
By Anthony Bellotti on Humane Research Council (HRC)
They’re baaaack ... have you seen the latest round of billboards from the animal experimentation industry? Pro-vivisection ads have been popping up this month in major cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Baltimore, and Madison.
Original FBR billboard
"Who Would You Rather See Live?" the new billboards ask, pitting a white lab rat against a smiling young female child. This may feel a little like “Back to the Future” as the animal experimentation folks resurrected their similarly nonsensical “Ever Had Leprosy? Thanks to Animal Research You Won’t” theme from a couple of years ago.
The Foundation for Biomedical Research - an anti-animal front group representing the financial interests of the vivisection industry - is the sponsor of both campaigns. This “new” ad campaign is simply a regurgitation of a very old ruse in which apologists for animal experimentation set up a false choice between human life and animal life. Of course, this argument has more holes in it than a golf course... but that’s a discussion for another time.
For now, I thought it might be interesting to explore the strategic calculus behind this ad campaign. What is FBR trying to do with these billboards? And what can we expect these billboards to actually accomplish? Are they successful and if not, where do they fall short?
Presumably FBR’s goal is to shore up public opinion for animal experimentation. To this end, their strategy is to generate earned media and attract eyeballs. Throw up a handful of billboards in cities with major vivisection centers and hope the media picks up on the ensuing controversy. (Ironically, it’s a technique straight out of PETA’s campaign playbook.) Done properly, the advertising starts a conversation, first in the press, then at the water cooler. But whether public opinion actually moves is another story entirely.
While it’s a little too early to write the billboards off as a waste of money (reportedly $125,000 - $150,000 was spent on these ads), I’m betting FBR isn’t getting the return on investment it expected. Here’s why: as Che noted earlier this month, the ever increasing amount of “noise” from competing advertisements and messages is posing a major challenge to paid media campaigns everywhere. It simply takes a greater number of impressions, gross rating points, or views for a sponsored message to sink in. And while these billboards have done a better than average job of cutting through the clutter, there is little evidence that FBR’s ads are shaping public opinion.
Long time readers of this blog also know that raising awareness is not sufficient to change behavior. And this is where FBR’s campaign may ultimately be falling short. The strength of paid media - and this campaign is no exception - lies in its ability to quickly raise awareness about an issue, brand, or idea. But advertising, in itself, is often not enough to “close the sale” in an issue campaign.
According to a 2009 Yankelovich Study, advertisers are also facing a severe credibility problem as 76% of people believe that companies lie in their ads. The most successful brands who overcome this perception are the ones that have forged relationships with their audience. This is where word of mouth marketing and old-fashioned grassroots tactics come into play.
At its core, word of mouth marketing is all about building relationships with those who perceive none to begin with. When you trust someone, you deem that person a “credible” messenger and you put more stock in that person’s opinions. This is why some people turn away from the solicitations of a panhandler yet donate liberally to their favorite charities. Animal advocates who understand this fundamental concept will have far better luck in changing community attitudes.
Our political opinions organize themselves largely in response to our relationships and contacts with our peers – those who are like us in social position and function. A campaign manager must therefore pursue a targeted, “narrowband” strategy to justify a paid media effort. It’s not enough to just throw up a few billboards and expect to move numbers.
If we accept FBR at its word, public support for animal experimentation is declining and that’s why they’ve launched yet another media blitz. In FBR’s words: there has been "a drop in public support for animal research from the 1990s, when it was over 70 percent, to 54 percent in 2008.” Of course, the public opinion dynamics of this issue are far more nuanced, with support holding steady for certain practices, dropping for others, rising for some animals, less so for others etc. It remains to be seen whether the latest round of billboards alter these trends.
I have little doubt that the FBR billboards are heightening awareness of the issue - at least for the time being. The earned media strategy seems to be working; people are talking about the ads. But without a dedicated grassroots component to round out this effort I wouldn’t expect public opinion about animal experimentation to shift much, if at all from current levels.
In my next blog post, I’ll explore and contrast the difference between traditional advertising campaigns such as the FBR billboards and successful word-of-mouth initiatives that build credibility in addition to awareness.