The Death of Activism and the Rise of Branding Spectacle in Animal Advocacy

The traditional animal welfare groups never bothered much with activism. These were charities that just wanted donations.

Then, in the 1980s, the “animal rights” movement arrived in the U.S. Although the movement started off with a focus on grassroots activism, the movement morphed into the new welfarist movement–a conglomeration of corporate charities that talked about abolition as the end goal but promoted the same donation-raising welfare reform campaigns and single-issue campaigns as a supposed means to that end. The primary form of “activism” became writing a check to support these campaigns. If individuals sought any input into the direction of the movement or, perish the thought, challenged it in any way, they were told to stop being “divisive.” They were told that we needed “movement unity.” That was all code for: “shut up and make a donation.”

And now, we have the new groups that proclaim that they are all about “activism.” And what does that mean? It means “instant activism” You don’t have to learn anything. You don’t have to understand anything about animal rights theory, what abolition means, or about why veganism is a moral imperative. You don’t even have to be a vegan. You just have to show up at events and stand silently, wearing a mask and holding a laptop, or screaming at people in restaurants, or delaying the arrival of truck to the slaughterhouse so that you can “bear witness.” These “activist” groups even promote the new welfarist corporate charities in various ways. “Activism” has become: “show up and help us do events that brand us.” “Activism” is all about branding, social events, and entertainment.

And we have a “new” brand of “leader”: celebrity “activists” with Patreon accounts who want you to provide them with a living so that they can have a career in “activism.” You know, just like the executives over at the corporate charities.

Have some people gone vegan as a result of the “activist” groups and Patreon-funded “leaders”? I have no doubt some have. But that is not the point. Some people have gone vegan as a result of the new welfarist groups and their “happy exploitation” campaigns. The point is that if the people who are involved in these “activist” and new welfarist groups actually educated themselves and got involved in clear, unequivocal abolitionist vegan advocacy, we’d be getting many more people to go vegan. And we would have a movement that presented veganism as something that people did not find strange and alienating.

Showing violent videos is not new. Animal people have been doing that for years. Indeed, many of the new “activists” do not seem to know that during the 1990s, there was a campaign to show violent videos in public using a kiosk. The general problem with violent videos is that, in a society in which animal use is taken as a given, these videos have the overall effect of getting people to support things like CCTC cameras in slaughterhouses, “undercover” investigations of factory farms, and all of the things that are part and parcel of the “happy exploitation” movement. That is precisely why the large corporate charities also use the violent imagery–it is useful in getting support for their new welfarist campaigns. The new “activists” are getting their video footage from the new welfarist corporate charities. Think about that for a second.

We have “activists” stopping trucks on the way to the slaughterhouse so that “activists” can “bear witness.” Animals en route to slaughter are terrified. Stopping a truck so that “activists” can stick cameras, petting hands, or crying faces in front of the animals may create a spectacle but it does nothing for the animals. Indeed, to prolong their distress is to harm them.

In 1989, PETA started with the “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur Campaign.” In many ways, that was the beginning of moving activism away from substance and in the direction of a branding spectacle. And we are now reaching a stage where “activism” is branding spectacle. “Activism” is more about events that involve a formula that is identified with one group or another and that serve to reinforce a brand. “Activism” is more about providing some “experience” for people than it is changing the paradigm in which nonhuman animals are things.

Do you want a vegan world? You need to do three things: (1) you need to be vegan; (2) you need to educate yourself about animal rights and abolition, and about why veganism is a moral imperative; and (3) you need to become a creative and nonviolent educator in your community. We need a grassroots movement where each of us is a “leader” who incorporates our veganism into every aspect of our daily lives. And our educational efforts should always focus proceed in a context that clearly promotes nonviolence and rejects human discrimination. We should seek to become a new, and more inclusive, peace movement.

We need to get away from the idea of “activism” as spectacle that brands particular groups and the development of yet another group of Patreon-funded careerist “leaders.” We need to resurrect the grassroots movement that started in 1980 but that was replaced by corporate charities and street theater.

Real activism is hard work. But it is the only way things will change. There is a great deal of current interest in veganism. Let’s take advantage of that interest in funnel it in a productive direction.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself. If animals matter morally, veganism is not an option — it is a necessity. Anything that claims to be an animal rights movement must make clear that veganism is a moral imperative. Embracing veganism as a moral imperative and advocating for veganism as a moral imperative are, along with caring for nonhuman refugees, the most important acts of activism that you can undertake.

If you are already vegan, educate yourself so that you can go out and educate others.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Learn more about veganism at

Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Professor of Law, Rutgers University
Honorary Professor (Philosophy) University of East Anglia

©2018 Gary L. Francione