Shock Advocacy

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Shock Advocacy

[Ed. Note: Also read “Pay Per View” Outreach and Funding Program.]

From Humane Research Council (HRC)
August 2010

Sometimes referred to as "shock advocacy," the tactic of using graphic and shocking images to sway opinion is controversial. Following the principle that "a picture is worth a thousands words," animal advocacy signs and literature often feature images of animals suffering in an attempt to make the general population aware of the cruelty that animals suffer on a daily basis in slaughterhouses, factory farms, fur farms, puppy mills and other locations of animal exploitation. The main objection to these images is that they may be perceived as "too graphic" and so turn people off of the message of animal rights. Nonetheless, this tactic is often used in animal protection campaigns.

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A study by Joseph N. Scudder and Carol Bishop Mills [The Credibility of Shock Advocacy: Animal Rights Attack Messages] examines this question. Scudder and Mills conducted a case study of a single campaign that used graphic images to sway the public’s opinion about factory farming by highlighting cruelty on a corporate pig farm. They found the advertising campaign was effective at delegitimizing the corporate pig farm while also increasing the perceived credibility of the organization that ran the campaign (PETA). This is of course just one study, and so it is not enough to conclude that shock advocacy is always effective in all types of campaigns. However, it does suggest that it may be a viable option for certain types of campaigns.

As with any social movement, the animal protection movement has a variety of goals and a multitude of campaigns on which it is working simultaneously, so a tactic that is appropriate in one scenario may not be appropriate in another. A study on the reception of subliminal messages by the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests to me that the time when shock advocacy may be most useful is when people only have a very short amount to time to view a campaign message.

This study tested the impact of words that were quickly flashed in front of participants and found that negative messages were more easily conveyed in this way than were positive images. Because shock advocacy is focused on highlighting cruelty, a negative message, the use of such images may be more effective than promoting logical arguments on materials that are viewed quickly, such as protest signs that are viewed by people as they drive by demonstrations and protests. This, of course, is just a hypothesis and actual research needs to be done as to what types of materials -- and in which campaigns -- shock advocacy can be effective for furthering animal protection efforts.