Thank you for visiting our animal defence section. Before reading our main essay, please join us in a moment of compassion and reflection.
By Shane Sayers | Crossposted with Animal People Forum
IntroductionAnimals have long served as objects of human admiration, as evidenced by our historic desire to anthropomorphise them. However, meat and animal products are equally pervasive in modern society, implying a cultural tension.
Together, the cultural significance of meat and our supposed ‘love’ of animals demonstrate a fragile paradox, which advertisers have responded to in order to continue selling animal products.
My first chapter will examine the lingual and physical abstraction of animals – i.e. the re-formation and processing that physically differentiates meat from animals, as well as the euphemisms used to describe and re-contextualise meat. The focus of this enquiry is to understand how these abstractions may inform and influence the consumer’s attitude towards animals as food in consumer culture. Chapter 2 will address the prevalence of anthropomorphism and the largely unstudied phenomenon of ‘anthropomorphic cannibalism’ in advertising. By critically analysing a range of anthropomorphic representations in advertising and film, I hope to gain a greater perspective on the representation of farm animals and the interests of the advertiser. Finally, my third chapter will discuss the potential of welfare labels such as ‘humane certified’ and ‘free-range’ to influence consumer attitudes towards meat and eggs, deconstructing the concept of ‘happy meat’.
Abstraction: animals as meat
Throughout history animals have been attributed magical qualities and depicted as spiritual messengers, yet within the context of modern Western society our relationship with animals is defined primarily by our dependency on them for meat (Berger 12). Meat has long been considered the most highly prized food in Western culture, serving as the centre of every meal. Meat was once seen as a sign of privilege; however, it has come to be regarded as somewhat of a right for Westerners. The status of meat however is accompanied by ambivalence; ‘animal derived foods have a potential for provoking unease that is not found in vegetable foods’ (Twigg 22).
In UK and America people tend to care about animals, even ‘love’ them. Pets are considered ‘a part of the family’ by 92% of American households, and our contribution to animal charities expresses a great interest in protecting them (Lancendorfer et al. 384). In keeping with our love of animals, we hate to see them suffer. Hence, the law offers protection to many wild and domesticated animals, as well as punishment to those who abuse or neglect them. Most meat eaters are horrified by the act of slaughter; consequently the origins of meat have become a sensitive taboo subject. It is thought that people who eat meat are likely to suffer from cognitive dissonance caused by the consideration that animals must suffer in order to produce meat (Steve Loughnan et al. 159).
Cognitive dissonance is defined as an uncomfortable state of mind held by someone who possesses two or more contradictory beliefs, attitudes or actions (Festinger 3).
Dissonance is thought about as a cognitive disharmony; according to Festinger (1957) there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency and harmony among their cognitions, hence cognitive dissonance is a state one actively seeks to resolve (3). Subjects of the meat paradox (loving animals and loving meat) are faced with the cognitive dissonance caused by their inconsistent beliefs (Steve Loughnan et al. 157). To resolve the dissonance caused by loving animals and loving meat, consumers must either stop eating meat or dissociate meat from animals in order to feel comfortable about eating animals (Steve Loughnan et al. 156).
Another solution to the dissonance caused by loving meat and loving animals is to deny that animals have minds. One may therefore see animals as unworthy of moral consideration as they are considered unable to suffer. In a study conducted by Loughnan, Hislam and Bastian (2010), 108 students were told they were going to be randomly assigned beef jerky or cashew nuts, and asked to fill out a questionnaire afterwards. The researchers hypothesise that eating meat (in this instance the jerky) will influence the degree to which people attribute minds to the animal they eat, thus leading people to deny moral status to the animal they eat (Steve Loughnan et al. 157). The results confirm these predictions, suggesting that by adapting the belief that animals have a capacity to feel, consumers may reduce dissonance.
In our consumer society, disassociation is perpetuated by the abstract commercial representation of animals as meat. Wherever consumers encounter meat, be it in the supermarket or restaurant, euphemisms such as ‘pork’ (pig), ‘beef’ (cattle) and ‘mutton’ (sheep) are used to objectify and commercialize animals; these terms cause consumers to disassociate meat from animals (Norton 26). Many ‘cuts’ of meat (such as those pictured in fig.1 below) as well as terms such as ‘burger’, ‘meatball’ and ‘sausage’ divide the animal into subsidiary products, making it easier for disassociation to take place.
As evidenced by Plous, the meat industry knowingly uses language to influence consumers in their favour:
We talk about ‘beef, ‘veal’ and ‘pork’ rather than bull-meat, calf-meat or pig-meat because the euphemisms, in every sense, are more palatable than the reality. The meat industry is only too well aware of this. A recent edition of the British Meat Trades Journal recommended a change in terminology designed to ‘conjure up an image of meat divorced from the act of slaughter’. Suggestions included getting rid of the words ‘butcher’ and ‘slaughterhouse’ and replacing them with the American euphemisms ‘meat plant’ and ‘meat factory’ (Plous 195).
A recent article in Appetite journal (2016) presents relevant findings in the field of meat phycology; in a study regarding the lingual ‘trait disassociation’ of meat, Kunst and Hohle presented two almost identical menus to American participants. One menu used the meat terms ‘Beef’ and ‘Pork’ to describe various dishes and the other used the animal terms ‘Cow’ and ‘Pig’ to describe the same dishes. In theory, using animal terms causes less willingness to eat meat and more willingness to choose a vegetarian alternative due to higher levels of disgust and empathy caused by lower levels of state disassociation. The results confirm this hypothesis, implying that the lingual abstraction of meat does have an affect on consumers (Kunst and Hohle 761). The terms ‘Cow’ and ‘Pig’ are generally used in the context of live animals which people generally do not associate with food, so these terms are thus able to interrupt the disassociation process and reclaim empathy for the animal in question (Kunst and Hohle 762).
Not only does lingual abstraction take place between the producer and the consumer, but also a significant amount of physical abstraction. After slaughtering an animal and retrieving the commercially desirable cuts of meat (an act of physical abstraction – see fig.1) many undesirable parts of the animal remain that are seen as unfit for human consumption. The revolting witch’s brew in Macbeth consisted entirely of meat and animal products, aside from 2 poisonous plant ingredients (Mabillard); if this potent concoction had consisted of vegetables it would not have achieved the same horror. Many parts of an animal cause disgust when associated with eating, such as the blood vessels, eyes, nose, and hair (Twigg 22). The eyes particularly remind us of the animal’s sentience, thus are potentially unsettling when dissociated from the body.
Not only are we highly sensitive about which parts of the animal we eat, but also which animals we eat. Horses for instance are domestic animals highly valued in the UK; a strong cultural taboo forbids anyone from eating them. However, in 2013 the ‘horsemeat scandal’ took place, shocking consumers throughout the UK. Products withdrawn from the supermarket ‘Aldi’ were found to contain up to 100% horsemeat despite being labelled ‘beef’ (The Guardian). This incident and others like it indicate that meat is a highly abstract product; consumers cannot distinguish cow meat from horsemeat because neither resembles the animal of origin. In her thesis ‘Psychological consistency, inconsistency and cognitive dissonance in the relationship between eating meat and evaluating animals’ Norton supports this point, remarking ‘Sufficient studies have now agreed that meat-eaters do not spontaneously connect animals to meat, and do not want the connection to be pointed out to them’ (25).
Another set of studies conducted by Kunst and Hohle examines the physical state disassociation of meat, measuring participants’ reactions to a variety of stimuli. Study 1 presents a raw chicken depicted at 3 stages of processing: low (whole carcass), medium (commonly cut) and high (minced chicken). Kunst and Hohle hypothesise that highly processed (abstracted) meat causes less empathy due to higher levels of state disassociation (761). As predicted, the diced chicken (high processing) evoked less empathy than the whole chicken carcass (low processing) (Kunst and Hohle 762).
Although these results are promising, the study was considered to have limitations, the first regarding the already processed state of the chicken and the second the relationship between empathy and species similarity:
Previous research suggests that the face is “the emotion highway”, communicating inner states and offering the quickest connection to the other. Hence, especially the removal of the head may potentiate the dissociation – empathy link. Second, empathy increases with similarity, and here species similarity is one relevant factor. For instance, humans generally feel more empathy towards other primates and mammals, and less empathy towards birds. (Kunst and Hohle 762)
The second study sets out to test the limitations of the last, using another two pictures as stimuli: a pork roast is presented with and without a head.
As predicted, the beheaded pig produced a substantial drop in empathy, evoked significantly less disgust and increased willingness to eat meat due to increased state disassociation (Kunst and Hohle 763). This supports the idea that abstraction (or processing) has a strong potential to influence consumers’ evaluation of meat, and in particular the removal of the head transforms the consumers’ relationship with the animal.
Anthropomorphism: animals as humans
“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” (Adams 84).
‘The pig that wanted to be eaten’ is a reference to the iconic scene from Douglas Adam’s book ‘The Restaurant at the End of the Universe’ in which a pig that has been bred to want to be eaten offers itself to the story’s earthling protagonist Arthur. What makes this scene so uncanny is not only the anthropomorphic features attributed to the pig, such as its ability to talk and gesture, but the moral conundrum it poses; if an animal wanted to be eaten and was able to say so, would eating it be moral? The focus of this research project is a specific anthropomorphic phenomenon that occurs frequently in food advertising but remains largely unstudied – the portrayal of animals that want to be eaten or exploited (Arthur opted for a ‘green salad’, much to the pig’s dismay).
What is anthropomorphism?
Anthropomorphism refers to the attribution of human characteristics to animals, gods or objects (Oxford Dictionary). It is derived from the Ancient Greek ‘Anthropos’, meaning that which pertains to human, and ‘morphe’ meaning physical form (as opposed to ‘nous’ meaning mind), hence was originally used to describe physical humanistic traits (Connel 4). The term has since developed to encompass emotional/behavioural states, like laughter or the ability to talk, which plays an important role in the commercial representations of animals.
The ability of anthropomorphic characters to perform human behaviours allows advertisers to exploit animals, conveying the company’s messages through them.
The earliest anthropomorphic depictions of animals can be found on cave walls, rocks and pottery. These images express the cultural meanings represented by the animal to the civilization of that time (Spears et al. 87). Cave paintings such as at Lascaux and Altamira portray a sense of awe for the animal. Humans living in Western society no longer think in this animistic way, although some cultural meanings remain (Spears et al. 87). Different animals have different cultural meanings, for instance the characteristics of messenger, companion and guardian are commonly associated with dogs, whereas masculinity, death, sensual appetite and war are most commonly associated with the horse (Spears et al. 88). These animal characters are capable of transferring culturally unexpected meanings on to brands which may enhance their appeal to consumers (Lloyd and Woodside 5) (Connell).
The cow however is an ‘ambivalent cultural symbol of nature and the feminine’ (Stevens et al. 159). The etymology of ‘cow’ reveals cultural tension: a cow is a female bovine, with the most widespread species being cattle, commonly used for meat, milk and leather. There is also an informal definition that highlights the use of the word ‘cow’ as a derogatory term, which describes ‘a woman, especially a fat or stupid one’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Stevens, Kearney & Maclaran suggest that the expression of ‘milking’ or being ‘milked’ ‘overtly alludes to its essence as a term for being exploited, its resources plundered by another’ (159). Other cultures, unlike the West, revere cows as sacred objects of worship and female deities that represent nature, the land, and even life itself. The de-sacralisation of cows in Western culture may express society’s rejection of rural and traditional lifestyles in favour of a commercial society, one increasingly capable of both exploiting animals and hiding their exploitation (Stevens et al. 160).
‘La Vach Qui Rit’ or ‘The Laughing Cow’, famous for her cheese earrings, innocent eyes and joy filled smile, made her first appearance in 1929, and in doing so set the precedent for future cow mascots (Stevens et al. 161). Our first encounter with anthropomorphism is in the brand’s provocative name: laughter, a human characteristic deriving from happiness, is in this case applied to a cow, suggesting that laughter and happiness are associated with the product. The brand also implies it is endorsed by the happy, laughing cows that produce it.
A 2011 TV advert goes further to state the product is ‘made with laughter’, reaffirming the concept of ‘happy cows’. The reality of dairy production alludes to something entirely different; conventional dairy cows endure an almost endless cycle of artificial insemination, pregnancy and birth, with their babies taken away shortly after birth to make the milk available for human consumption. This separation is distressing for both the mother and her calf (Degrazia 220). The natural lifespan of a cow is around 20 years, yet within the dairy industry, cows usually live up to four or five, by which time they are considered ‘spent’, slaughtered and used primarily for processed beef and low-grade hamburger meat (Degrazia 220). Hence, ‘The Laughing Cow’, armed with its anthropomorphic ploys, serves to distract consumers from the reality of the animal agriculture industry in which cows are seen as objects, not humans (contrary to what is implied by this advertisement).
The aforementioned ‘The Laughing Cow’ advert features a flurry of high-spirited anthropomorphised worker bulls and a noticeably masculine rapping bull (complete with gold chains and nose ring) that takes centre stage. The production finishes with a moment of anticipation as the workers gather to wait for ‘The Laughing Cow”s silent approval, which is ensued by wild celebration. The use of anthropomorphism in this advert is immediately visible, from the cattle’s ability to stand on two legs, talk and perform human tasks, to more careful details, such as the presence of eyebrows that facilitate the expression of their human emotions. The Laughing Cow is depicted with scarlet lipstick and thick black eyelashes that assign her gender as an exaggeratedly feminine human-cow, yet she completely lacks the udders of a cow – an easily overlooked detail in the advert signifying the extent of the anthropomorphism. Observing this commercial through an ecofeminist lens, Stevens, Kearney & Maclaran highlight the clearly androgynous nature of the cows, suggesting that this is a deliberate marketing strategy that indicates ‘the shuddering revulsion towards that on which one continues to depend, the lactating mother (cow), the monstrous feminine’ (167).
This advert for The Laughing Cow contributes to a narrative that has become increasingly popular in the advertisement of dairy products: ‘animals want to serve humans’. Anchor Butter’s ‘Made by cows’ advertisement utilises digital manipulation to make ‘real’ cows perform human tasks (see fig.4) – the advert takes place in another factory setting where the cows work to make butter, driving fork-lift trucks, operating machinery and packing a delivery van, all to the tune of Guns N’ Roses ‘Paradise city’. The advert finishes with the delivery driver gesturing his appreciation to the cows before he drives away into the distance, the finishing touch to what seems like a very light hearted advert. This advert is very clever, in fact flawless from a consumer standpoint. It presents a realistic veneer of dairy production by placing ‘real’ cows in a ‘real’ human working environment, making it easy to forget the product’s origins beyond the fake factory setting. The cows’ endorsement also acts as a safety net of reassurance to the consumer: ‘They are anthropomorphised to ensure that we don’t perceive cows as animals, forced to serve humanity’s needs all their lives’ (Stevens et al. 164). By humouring the cows’ anthropomorphism, the advert also eludes to their reality as the ‘other’, something very separate from man, in fact mastered by man (Stevens et al. 164). This dark undertone unties the digital manipulation of the cows, demonstrating the insincere nature of their representation as animals that want to serve humans.
The popularity of cows in advertising can be attributed to their ability to be easily humanised without obscuring their animal traits: ‘it is easy to place eyebrows, a human smile or items of clothing on them [cows]without damaging the element of realism that the marketers must maintain’ (Stevens et al. 161). However, it is possible to cross this indistinct line, forcing the anthropomorphised subject to appear false and clearly manipulated, as with Cadbury’s ‘Tap Dancing Cow’. The cow in this advert appears to adopt strange, unnatural movements, jerking and contorting its limbs to Fred Astaire’s ‘Putting on the Ritz’. Here, the use of computer manipulation works to the advertiser’s disadvantage, failing to replicate the success of the famous Gorilla that drummed along to Phil Collins ‘In the Air Tonight’ (Stevens et al. 165). In a study by Connel, people responded more favourably to anthropomorphic portrayals of animals with a ‘high species similarity’ to humans than to non-anthropomorphic portrayals. However, participants responded more favourably to non-anthropomorphic representations of animals with a ‘low species similarity’ (Connell 465). Thus, whilst demonstrating that anthropomorphism can be used to enhance the appeal of a product or brand, this study also shows that advertisers must work with its boundaries and limitations; failing to do so may result in uncomfortable viewing (Connell 465). Stevens, Kearney & Maclaran agree, stating that this advert in particular ‘underlines the humiliation that is fundamental to a cow’s condition – an animal that is essential to humanity yet is mocked and ridiculed by humans’ (165).
Another product which exemplifies the phenomenon of ‘anthropomorphic cannibalism’ is ‘Piggy Snax’, a brand of fried pork rinds. The product’s can details a pig dressed in a chef’s uniform, a notable trend in food advertising characters of the 20th century, and a somewhat naïve tactic by today’s more ‘sophisticated’ advertising standards (Dotz and Husain 33). The pig is pictured frying what we assume to be the product, therefore immediately involving the anthropomorphised animal in the preparation of its own body parts. Also, the pig’s expression is that of anticipation and hunger – the drip of saliva coming from its mouth confirms this and conveys the advertiser’s message: ‘our product is delicious’, so delicious in fact that the pig (pork) himself wants to eat it. Thus the brand creates inadvertent cannibalistic undertones. The term ‘Piggy’ is a child’s term for a pig and is generally associated with cute, innocent baby pigs, hence placing the associated animal as far from pork as possible (Cambridge dictionary). It is worth noting that this term is related to fascination people feel for ‘adorable’ animals, hence the term ‘doggies’ similarly refers to cute, baby dogs. Why then does this brand not exploit the lure of adorable baby pigs to make their product seem more appealing? Grauerholz identifies the distinct lack of baby animals in food advertising, explaining that marketers consciously avoid using baby animals as they may evoke negative reactions to the product due the animals’ ‘cuteness’, innocence and vulnerability: ‘It is one thing to conceive of eating an adult animal but something entirely different to think about eating her babies’ (Grauerholz 348-349). Furthermore, ‘Snax’ is used to substitute for ‘snacks’; a small, convenient food, usually requiring little or no effort to prepare. It is by combining the terms ‘Piggy’ and ‘Snax’ that this product makes consuming the anthropomorphised pig a casual, informal and even fun matter, further justified by the convenience of the product and the pig’s willingness to be eaten. Gruaerholz notes that cannibalistic images such as these take on a quality of ‘disnification’, a term Baker uses to describe the tendency to make animals appear stupid (Baker and Adams 174). By applying disnification to their subjects, images such these are able to disempower animals, “forcing them into ridiculous situations and making them appear more ignorant and vulnerable than they really are” (Harris 6).
British fast food advertising takes on a similar tone of disnification; this picture taken recently in Brighton shows a ‘chicken shop’ sign branded with a jolly anthropomorphic chicken, demonstrating the prevalence of ‘anthropomorphic cannibalism’ within the UK.
On occasion however, farm animals are allowed to escape their service to humans in consumer culture. George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ is one of these instances. The 1958 movie adaptation of the book portrays a rebellion against humans led by anthropomorphised pigs. Whilst intended to reflect the events of the Russian revolution, the narrative of this film also demonstrates the oppression faced by the animals of the farm, bringing to attention their cruel treatment and condemning their slaughter. The film even appears to acknowledge the intelligence of pigs, as evidenced by their strong leadership and reasoning abilities in the film. This reflects evidence that pigs are ‘more intelligent than dogs’ and ‘as intelligent as 4 year old children’. Humans play the movie’s villains, particularly the farmer Mr. Jones who is portrayed as an unkind, foul tempered alcoholic who overindulges whilst the animals starve: “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. … Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself” (Orwell 4).
By choosing to play his political commentary through the animals, Orwell allows the plight of farm animals to be recognised. In a preface to the Ukrainian edition of animal farm ‘Kolghosp Tvaryn’ Orwell writes:
I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans. (Orwell and Bradbury 122)
The story came to Orwell one day when he saw a carthorse being abused by a child. It was then he had the revelation, “men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat” (Orwell and Bradbury 122). Unfortunately, Orwell’s powerful observation about humans and animals has been ‘effaced from the public record’; today the notion that ‘Animal Farm’ represents animal rights is ridiculed (Masson 239).
CONTINUE FROM HERE…Similarly, the 2000 animation ‘Chicken Run’ follows a group of anthropomorphised chickens as they attempt to escape from a chicken farm stylised as a World War II prison camp (Cole and Stewart 3). The story invites viewers to identify with the chickens as they rebel against their human oppressors to avoid ending up as food (Cole and Stewart 3). Once again, the farmers are depicted as the ‘evil’ villains, demonstrated by their hideous plot to kill the protagonists and turn them into ‘chicken pies’. Cole and Stewart recognise the films potential to challenge perceptions of animals as food, stating: ‘At first glance then, ‘Chicken Run’ subverts food norms by destabilizing the taken-for-granted exploitation of chickens’ (3). Whilst the film encourages the audience to support the heroes in their escape, a marketing tie-in from fast food chain Burger King contradicts this message, inviting children to take home their toy representations with the ‘Big Kids meal’ that promotes the consumption of animals that have been subjected to the same fate the movies heroes fought against (Cole and Stewart 3).
Fig.8 shows an advertisement produced by Burger King to endorse the tie-in: in it two children are pictured using the promotional toys that depict the animals’ heroic escape from the farm. Whilst entertained by the toy, one child bites into an airplane shaped ‘chicken tender’. These abstract ‘chicken tenders’ reconstructed dead chickens into a novelty symbol of the characters’ ‘escape’ from becoming food. This dissonant practice is able to take place because farm animals are only saved ‘if they transcend their species-being’ (Stewart and Cole 465). This is something that the chickens in ‘Chicken Run’ do very well by adopting human personalities, items of clothing and anatomical features, most notably the dexterous human-like hands that replace their wings (as seen in Fig.7). Ironically, real chickens are not human enough for the film’s pro animal rights narrative to apply to them, whilst the chickens in the movie are not represented as animal enough to force consumers to reconsider the treatment of real chickens. The animated characters in the movie are conceptually disassociated from real chickens, and therefore concerns for the welfare of the characters is not equally applied to real chickens. This conceptual separation (or disassociation) is sustained by the fast food tie-in, which relies on the child yielding to its objectification of the farm animal. Cole and Stewart elaborate, stating: ‘The maintenance of the contradiction to both protect and eat animals relies on the two animal items in the meal box (toy and food) staying firmly in their separate categories…’ (Stewart and Cole 466).
‘Humane meat’ and the consumer concept of animal welfareThe slaughter and exploitation of animals is often portrayed to consumers as ‘humane’ using welfare labels such as ‘Free Range’, ‘RSPCA assured’ and ‘Humane Certified’. By using welfare labels such as these, producers are able to suggest that their product is ethical, offering the consumer valuable peace of mind (Cole 84). A survey conducted for ASPA found that 77% of consumers were ‘concerned about the welfare of animals raised for food’ and additional research shows that 44% of consumers are willing to pay 5% more for ‘humane meat’, demonstrating a large market for ‘ethical’ animal foods (ASPCA).
Free-range eggs now account for around half of all egg sales in the UK. One of the largest and most popular free-range egg brands is ‘The Happy Egg Co’, widely recognised by consumers for the ‘win-win’ slogan featured in their adverts: ‘Happy hens lay tasty eggs’. Statements like this reassure consumers that they are doing a good thing by supporting an ‘ethical’ product that appears to put animal welfare first. The alleged connection between welfare and taste improves the products’ appeal by implying one is responsible for the other; therefore, consumers who purchase the product for its superior taste are also rewarded with a clear conscience (Cole 94). Cole notes that ‘happy meat’ producers are eager to promote both selling points. However, this may end up exposing a clear conflict of interests: “the Well Hung Meat Company (the virile discourse of meat-eating hardly needs comment here) boasts that, ‘Animal Welfare is top of our list of priorities’, but also claims that, ‘[m]ost importantly, taste is top of our agenda”. Cole suggests that for suppliers of humane meat ‘taste’ is always the real incentive; if welfare were the priority, the interest of animals to avoid suffering and death would be valued, thus undermining the existence of their product.
The Happy Egg website is also full of imagined anthropomorphic scenarios that express an unrelenting desire to convince consumers that their product is free from welfare concerns. Here is one such example:
‘Happy Egg Co. hens get to enjoy the freedom they deserve every day, whether they’re out shaking their tail feathers, taking flying lessons, or just catching up on last night’s soaps – and because of this, they lay the tastiest eggs. Good job, girls!’ (The Happy Egg Co)
We can safely assume that the hens on Happy Egg farms are not catching up on any T.V. soaps. This farfetched statement lacks factual information altogether, using anthropomorphism to produce the mental image of hens enjoying the high life, which conveniently benefits the consumer by leading to ‘the tastiest eggs’. Dillard explains that because consumers are willing to pay more for labels such as ‘free-range’, and because these products usually cost more to produce, ‘there is an incentive to convince buyers at the point of purchase that goods are created under more animal-friendly conditions than they in fact are’ (Dillard 26). A 2010 undercover investigation by animal charity Viva revealed appalling conditions at RSPCA certified Happy Egg farms, showing diseased and distressed hens crammed into a dark barn with limited access to the outdoors. Hens were found to spend up to 21 weeks in ‘intensive sheds’ before being put into the free-range units, whilst the ‘caring’ farmers were filmed carrying plastic bags full of dead chickens out of the sheds. Others hens were bald due to ‘pecking’, despite having their beaks ‘seared off’ at a few days old as per industry standard practice (Viva). The dust pits, dubbed ‘hen spas’ by the Happy Egg Co., were submerged in water in mid summer, and elsewhere birds had to wade through mud just to get outside, thus underlining the company’s exaggerated claims (Viva).
This incident is not the only one to mar the integrity of welfare labelling, as a 2015 PETA investigation into the notorious ‘humanely raised’ label demonstrates. At a farm that supplied ‘humanely raised pork’ for the high-class supermarket chain ‘Whole Foods Market’, pigs where routinely picked up by their ears, causing pain and distress (PETA). Larger pigs kept in crowded pens were given hardly enough room to turn and no access to the outdoors (PETA). In scenes reminiscent of Happy Egg Co., some pigs were seen to be sick and injured; seven pigs at the farm were suffering from rectal prolapse, whilst pigs that had died in the pen were dragged away by farmers (PETA). Apart from the pigs’ everyday living conditions, when it came time for slaughter they were packed into a ‘hot metal trailer’ so crowded that they were forced to stand on one another; these distressed pigs spent around 24 hours in the trailer, before meeting the same fate as every other ‘free-range’, ‘organic’ and humanely raised’ animal (PETA).
Irrespective of these incidents, the reality of welfare labeling is that it misleads consumers and creates false expectations. A Consumer Reports survey brings to light varying consumer beliefs about the ‘humanely raised’ label. 92% of consumers believed that farms were inspected to verify the claim, 90% thought it meant the animals had adequate living space, 88% thought the term meant animals were ‘humanely slaughtered’ and 79% thought the animals were raised outdoors (Consumer Reports). However, loose regulations by the USDA allow producers to decide what the term means to them, so consequently, none of the above claims are necessarily true (Consumer Reports). ‘Humane’ therefore means whatever producers want it to.
The concept of ‘happy’ or ‘humane’ meat is further demonstrated by Cole to be fundamentally flawed because it is unattainable. The belief that the ethical problems associated with factory farming are not associated with humane meat depends on the removal of ‘the machine discourse’ that justifies our exploitation of animals as mindless, emotionless objects (machines) (Cole 94). By highlighting animal welfare, producers highlight the animals’ sentience and emotional capacity, which do not fit into the concept of their happy, willing slaughter. Furthermore, by ascribing happiness to an object (meat), this term sustains the myth that our dominion over animals is not exploitative, as Cole too argues:
[T]he association of happiness with meat reinforces the idea that ‘farmed’ animals exist only to ‘provide’ meat. Being killed, butchered, sold and consumed is the fulfillment of their destiny, like the suicidal creature in Douglas Adams’ novel ‘Restaurant at the End of the Universe’ (94).
In fact, welfare labels have more to do with the welfare of consumers than animals. By reaffirming the consumers’ self-concept of their relationship with food animals, these terms redress the habit of meat consumption as a benevolent gesture, allowing the misrepresentation of animals in consumer culture to remain unaddressed along with the consumer habits they influence (Cole 84).
Kunst and Hohle demonstrate the potential of physical and lingual abstraction to influence consumer decisions, suggesting that these abstractions cause the consumer to disassociate animals from meat, resulting in a significant reduction of empathy towards the animal, a point supported by Norton. The removal of the head especially transforms the consumers’ relationship with the animal, increasing the consumers’ willingness to buy meat. By conceptually separating animals from their products (e.g. milk, meat and eggs), anthropomorphic representations are able to pose the consumption of animals and their products as ethical. These anthropomorphic representations distract the consumer from the reality of animal agriculture to ensure they do not perceive animals as ‘forced to serve humanity’s needs all their lives’. The most significant tool advertisers use is humour, as with Anchor’s ‘Made by Cows’ campaign, yet this tactic proves to be the most insincere approach when representing animals and clearly exposes their ‘otherness’ from humans when scrutinised. Films such as ‘Chicken Run’ and ‘Animal Farm’ use anthropomorphism to reinstate animals as thinking, feeling beings, which could potentially subvert food norms and influence consumer perceptions of farm animals. However, consumers tend only to respect the animals in these films for their human-like qualities. In addition, Cole demonstratsd that welfare labeling is entirely subjective and requires no validation. These labels are therefore used as a ploy to reassure ambivalent consumers, increase product appeal and maintain the objectification of animals. Altogether, these findings suggest that food animals are more often than not represented as ‘objects for human consumption’ or ‘objects that want to serve humans’, narratives that deny the interests of farm animals.
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