In 2004, the nonprofit Compassion Over Killing (COK) started airing commercials in about 25 regional MTV markets. Five years later, the Washington, D.C., company shows the commercials, which encourage consumers to consider vegan diets, in every one of the hundreds of markets Comcast serves.
“I almost bought fried chicken for lunch today,” one viewer said in an e-mail to COK. “Then remembered your commercial I saw on TV last night.”
The commercials have affected the diets of countless young consumers, and COK has convinced industry big wigs such as Morning Star Farms and Dunkin' Donuts to offer more vegan options. This week, the nonprofit expects to hear back from Boca Foods about whether the company will decrease its use of eggs. We spoke with Erica Meier, executive director of COK, to find out what the company is about and how quick-serves can avoid being stung by its campaign.
What is the mission of the commercials?
Our goal is to encourage people to look at what their choices are, their dietary choices every day, and to understand the far-reaching impact of these choices. We believe that once people fully understand where these animal products are coming from and the cruelty behind it, they will choose more compassionate options.
Why air them almost exclusively on MTV?
Studies have shown that teen and young-adult audiences are most receptive to a message of vegetarian eating. They're more willing to explore new foods and change their diets.
Why do the commercials focus so heavily on graphic images of animal cruelty?
Since most people will never visit a factory farm, and since the industry attempts to keep a lot of these practices well hidden behind closed doors, we are striving to bring the factory farms to the audiences to show them that this is the reality of where our food is coming from.
How have viewers responded to the ads?
We are bombarded with positive responses from viewers.
Have there been negative reactions?
We definitely get hate mail from viewers who I think are shocked that we're showing this kind of footage, mostly in a defensive way. I think when people are challenged to examine their food choices, it does cause them to become defensive at times. So we do get negative mail, people who are mad that we are exposing these truths. We respond to all of these e-mails that we get in, whether it's a positive e-mail or a criticism. In most cases when we start dialogue with a person who originally sent the critical e-mail, it ends up in something positive.
In the five years the commercials have aired, how have you seen quick-serves affected?
I think overall the demand for vegetarian foods is on the rise nationally. In all demographics I think that more people are recognizing the many benefits of leaving animals off our plates, whether we're concerned about the environment, whether we're concerned about our health, whether we're concerned about animals. So I think that the restaurant industry in general is responding to that demand and increasing the number of meat-free options that they have on the menu.
Why should restaurants follow this trend?
Aramark, which is a foodservice provider largely for college campuses, did a poll a couple of years ago showing that 25 percent of the student population found it important to have vegan options on campus. These numbers are important to the survival of a lot of these industries. They have to provide consumers with what the demand is, and the demand is clearly leaning more toward vegetarian and vegan choices.
What do you hope quick-serves will take away from your campaign?
From small restaurants to locally based mom-and-pop-owned restaurants to national companies, I think that the message seems to be clear from consumers that these options are in higher demand. As more and more companies recognize this, I think they can benefit from it.