Activist Framing at Its ‘Best’: Analyzing Activist Communications

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Two weeks ago, I posted my first blog for the Alliance. My previous post focused on the idea that agricultural communication IS political communication and activist groups are currently doing a much better job than agriculturalists at communicating to the general public. I also talked about the concept of framing. Communication of all types, especially agricultural communication, is expressed to the public through framing, which refers to when a particular fact or information is taken and portrayed in a certain way to influence others and project a certain reality.

Among the most notable examples of activist opposition framing that I’ve seen is a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) advertisement that shows pigs that HSUS claim to be “trapped in cages for their entire lives without the ability to move”.

HSUS bus advertisement on gestation crates
HSUS bus advertisement on gestation crates

What this picture ACTUALLY depicts are gestation crates, where pigs and piglets are kept in a protected environment to keep the piglets from being injured or killed by  members of their own species. Farmers, like me, know that pigs by nature can be naturally aggressive. However, the average person that likes his eggs served with bacon thinks of pigs like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. Groups like the HSUS play on the average person’s perception and frame their version of reality based off this unfamiliarity with modern agriculture . In this, groups like the HSUS successfully frame their issues and, in this example the frame is the “Attack on Big Pork.”

In this campaign, the advertisement contains no numbers or statistics, but rather a surge of dramatic imagery and rhetoric in one sentence: “How would you like to spend the rest of your life in a space as small as a bus seat?” This provocative advertisement elicits unsettling and angry emotions for people taking the advertisement at face value and accepting it as reality.

Here, the HSUS has framed American pork production as a savage practice where animals are mistreated to satisfy the greed of the American factory farmer. This is only one of many examples, but it certainly is one of the more powerful activist messages being cast upon the public. If a massive advertisement on the side of a bus used for public transportation is not enough to convince you that the activists mean business, I don’t know what is.

So… what SHOULD we do to improve our communications strategies?

Get ourselves off of the defensive: It is tempting to want to respond to every negative piece of media attention. It’s certainly frustrating to see how so many people respond so easily in favor of activist messages when what they are portraying are not glimpses into reality. On a personal level, it angers me that so many people attack the very farmers who produce the food they put on their tables every day. That being said, no matter how cohesive the response to negative activist materials, always being in the position of responding makes you appear to be on the defensive. Being on the defensive paints a picture of guilt, where being on the offensive is attributed to being passionate and devoted to educating the public about the truth.

Humane Watch graphic exposing HSUS's spending
Humane Watch graphic exposing HSUS’s spending

The best example of the industry being on the offensive I have seen recently comes from Humane Watch. In their visually appealing graphic, which my fellow intern Casey wrote about in a recent post. Humane Watch sheds light on the truth behind HSUS’s spending practices. This graphic does an excellent job of putting HSUS on the defensive. With net assets exceeding $187.5 million dollars according to their public 2014 tax return, you would think the “world’s best animal protection organization” would shell out a lot more money to help animals in the 50 states. In this, the numbers don’t lie, but it’s pretty clear who does. As a collection of livestock industries we need to continue to present ourselves proactively on the issues that are important to us. By not waiting to respond to blatant lies and misrepresentations of our industries, we will garner a much better image with the public.

A HSUS holiday card from 'Wilbur'
A HSUS holiday card from ‘Wilbur’

***As a fun side note- when writing this post I came up with the Charlotte’s Web reference on my own. It was only a few days later while searching for something entirely different that I came across the HSUS holiday card! ***

(Editor’s note: When published, this blog contained an erroneous explanation about how gestation crates are used. We’ve corrected the post, and encourage you to visit this site to learn more:


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