Five Animal Advocacy Pitfalls to Avoid

The Humane Research Council (HRC) empowers animal advocates with access to the research, analysis, strategies, and messages that maximise their effectiveness to reduce animal suffering. Below is a recent HRC blog, reposted with permission.


HRC has been working with advocacy groups and individual advocates for more than 12 years to help them maximise the impact of their work for animals. Along the way, we’ve learned a few things about effective animal advocacy as well as the common mistakes that many advocates make. Keep reading to learn more about those mistakes and how to avoid the same pitfalls yourself. Your advocacy will be improved and the animals will appreciate it.

1) Being Untargeted
The “general population” is not your target audience. If you try to reach everyone at the same time and with the same message, you’ll end up reaching nobody. This is critically important for animal advocates to understand because we have such limited resources for our programmes and campaigns. Your target audience should be both persuadable and reachable with the resources at your disposal; start with the low-hanging fruit to build some critical mass. In some cases the right target audience will be obvious, other times it won’t be; you can use research to segment your audience and find out who would make the best target.

Many animal groups are already being more targeted in their work. For instance, vegan/vegetarian advocates are increasingly focused on college students, considered a more reachable audience than the average adult. Companion animal activists are using GIS to find high-risk zip codes for targeted spay/neuter campaigns. Anti-vivisectionists are focussing on teachers and students to ensure they’re reaching the key participants involved in animal dissection. We can learn from these examples and others. Only by narrowing our focus and limiting our target audience can animal advocates have a meaningful impact.

2) Being Unreadable
If you really want to reach that target audience, then your materials – leaflets, websites, press releases, etc. – need to be readable and understandable. The average adult (in the U.S.) reads at the equivalent of a 9th or 10th grade level and 44% of adults read at an 8th grade level or lower. But when HRC evaluated a dozen pieces of vegan outreach literature, we found that the average reading level for those materials was at the 11th grade reading level or higher. If this holds true for other animal advocacy materials, then it would represent a major disconnect with most of our target audience. The answer? Unless your materials are written for scientists or legislative aids, you should aim for a 7th-8th grade reading level and use a tool like Edit Central to pre-test your written materials.

3) Mixing Messages
There’s a well understood phenomenon in product marketing: give people too many choices and they’ll buy less than if you gave them fewer options. Although we need more research to verify it, the analog for advocates may be that if we give people too many reasons to do the right thing for animals, they’ll ignore them all. For instance, there are many reasons to spay or neuter one’s companion animals, but some of those reasons have strong cultural or social implications. Emphasising those reasons may be counterproductive with some segments of the population. Rather than lazily listing all of the potential reasons one may have for behaving in an animal-friendly way, advocates should do their homework and match the most effective motivations to the right audience.

4) Ignoring Incrementalism
Human nature poses certain challenges (to say the least). One of those challenges is resistance to change, which is a trait most people share. However, not all change is equal and there is more resistance to larger and/or more abrupt changes than to small or gradual changes. HRC has a long history of advocating what we call “incrementalism”. As advocates, we want as much change as possible, preferably yesterday. But as thoughtful architects of social change, we must also build a solid foundation for the cultural transformation that we seek. This means developing more of a relationship with our target audience and gently, but persistently, ushering them toward behavior that respects the inherent rights and interests of animals.

5) Misunderstanding Impact
HRC has worked with dozens of animal protection groups and foundations to help determine the impact they are having with their programmes and campaigns. Unfortunately, many advocates equate the outcomes of their work with the impact they are having. For instance, we count how many people attend an event or how many leaflets we’ve handed out and treat that as evidence of our impact, but it’s not. To really make a difference for animals, we must be more thoughtful about evaluating the true impact of our work for animals. Evaluation may be difficult, but it’s essential. To learn more about the difference between outcomes and impact and how to focus on the latter, check out the logic model development guide from the WK Kellogg Foundation.