Is Go Vegan changing the advertising standards?

Some advertising campaigns are subtle and creep up on us, delicately converting people to opinions and states of mind. Others shout at you, from every direction, “HERE I AM!”. The Go Vegan campaign sits firmly in the latter category. There are few in Ireland unfamiliar with the striking campaign. In recent years the provocative billboards have widely proliferated our society.

The campaign, which describes itself as a public advocacy group, is notorious for its provocative images and captions, such as “They trust us. We butcher them” accompany images of lambs being fed on a farm. Other notable and provocative captions include “Dairy takes mothers from their babies” and “She has one precious life. Will your dinner take it?”

The group’s primary goal is to challenge the legal status of animals as property. Founder of Go Vegan World, Sandra Higgins, in an open letter on their website describes how “a vegan world is only the starting point; our goal must be [animals’] freedom from us”. Launched in celebration of World Vegan Month in 2015 in Ireland, the eye-catching campaign caught the imagination of a public more attuned than ever to alternative lifestyles such as veganism. Such was the success of the campaign that it extended to other countries in 2016 under the banner of Go Vegan World, and has since become a global campaign.

The campaign, never shying away from conflict, often actively targets certain areas which are dairy and farming heartlands. The billboard erected on the main thoroughfare out of Castleisland in 2018, gained national notoriety after locals took exception to its presence in a town “heavily reliant on agriculture and farming”. Shane McAuliffe, of McAuliffe Pig Producers, spearheaded this protest in an open letter to the campaign. He explained that while he had “no issues with how someone should live their life or what lifestyle choice they choose, [he did] have issues with people whose sole aim is to close down Irish family farms”.

Unsurprisingly, this impassioned defence triggered the questioning of the true objective of the campaign. Were they simply an aggressive movement to highlight the cruelties of non-veganism, and thus promoting their own lifestyle choice or was their aim more discreet, and for that, more sinister? Were they anti-farmer? Was it a negative campaign, designed to alienate and shame all non-vegans into conversion?

Virtue signalling, the conspicuous expression of moral values, is becoming ever more prolific, as people adapt increasingly singular and niche views. Each are convinced that their own is the only way, and fear becoming zealotic in their determination to convert. Are they shaming others with the actual aim of conversion, or merely to flaunt their own superior morals? There are other campaigns that preach the benefits of veganism, rather than the flaws, as they may be, of a carnivorous and dairy-inclusive life. Many argue that these positive campaigns are actually more effective, as it avoids playing on the ‘social-Nazi’ label which many ascribe to vegans, and which is a significant deterrent to those contemplating veganism.

However, Go Vegan World founder Sandra Higgins refuted this suggestion and states that their billboard adverts "show animals for who they are. The ads merely refer to standard, legal practices inherent in all forms of animal use. These allegations serve the purpose of distracting from the real victims: animals at slaughterhouses who are killed for something we do not need. Go Vegan World does not condone threatening or abusive behaviour to anyone - other animals, vegan activists, or farmers. We are not against farmers; we are against animal use".

Although Higgins is technically correct that they don’t threaten farmers, it is appropriate to question whether or not this position stands up in reality. Rather than threatening the farmers, the campaigns threaten their livelihoods and social and moral standing. Higgins is technically correct that the advertisements don’t condone abuse - but their campaign has been consistently linked with death threats sent to notable farmers by ardent vegans.

Higgins also mounted a frontal media assault on the National Dairy Council’s campaign, which many described as a counter-attack to the Go Vegan campaign. Its lead ad, where a youngster berates a woman for ordering an ‘oat-milk latté’ - apart from being familiar to many millenials - was subject to a barrage of complaints. 109 complaints were lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI)I within a week - where in the previous year 126 complaints in total had been directed at food and drink advertisements.

Although the ASAI refused to disclose the number of complaints which have been made to it regarding the Go Vegan campaign itself, there is anecdotal evidence of people registering complaints under section 3.20 of that code which details that “They [Campaigns] should not use offensive or provocative copy or images merely to attract attention.” It is important to note that what the ASAI describes as ‘distasteful’ advertisements may yet be code-compliant.

Donations to the campaign increased tenfold between 2016 and 2017, with the majority of the €1 million euro donated coming from an anonymous sources. Of these donors, Go Vegan’s website says only that they are ‘like-minded’ individuals and that, as the campaign is not a registered charity, they have no obligation to disclose the identities or amounts concerned.

The animals featured on some of the billboards hail from Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary, which was founded by Higgins in 2008. “A vegan home” in Co.Meath, Eden’s residents (the animals) taught the campaign’s founder about the “personhood” of animals and inspired her to become the ‘at-the-coal-face’ activist she is now.

Whatever your thoughts on veganism, or on Go Vegan World’s push to convert wider society, it is clear that it is a singularly unapologetic campaign - perhaps emblematic of the stricken and divided world in which we live.