Can PETA Get Latinos to Stop Eating Meat?

OK, this got my attention. PETA – the animal rights advocacy group – has launched a campaign to persuade Hispanics to stop eating meat, and it’s doing that by appealing to other urges.

The group launched a Spanish language site, PETA Latino, which features this illustration on its home page.


The model is the ex-Miss Panama Patricia De León, and the message is that she wants you to eat your vegetables. It’s a message crafted for an uncommonly carnivorous audience, and PETA hopes to close the Latino vegetarian gap by heightening awareness, scoring celebrity testimonials (e.g., Ricky Martin), and yes, good old-fashioned cheesecake.

I am supportive to the first two approaches – for they are much needed – and while the third might seem, uh, cheesy, I think the PETA campaign plays it with finesse – with perhaps the right amount of irony, playfulness, and an understanding of its audience (for an opposing view, go here). And PETA has the experience, and the brand, for this kind of campaign, protecting the organization from the charge of manipulating an audience known – fairly or unfairly – not just for their carnivorous habits but for sexism as well.

Still, I wonder how effective a campaign can be when the behavior of the target is so deeply ingrained. Sometimes, it’s not enough to raise awareness, or to provide the right models for behavior (the rationale of celebrity testimonials). And sometimes it’s not enough to shock the audience – the rationale behind PETA’s approach. The shock can certainly get someone inside the sales funnel – it certainly got my attention, at least enough to write this column. But it’s but one touch point in a long and difficult sales cycle.

Behavior Design

All this is to say that campaigns like PETA’s – which are aimed at changing a persistent behavior – may benefit from the emerging science of behavior design. Developed and championed by researchers and practitioners at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, behavior design looks at ways to develop technology systems – and, by extension, communication systems as well – to optimize for the desired behavior. I will go deeper about the method in a later post. But in the meantime, there are at least three ways in which behavior design might help PETA Latino.

First, and most fundamental, is a feedback loop, enabling Latinos to record what they are eating to track their progress, note where they are failing, and make adjustments as needed. Creating an effective feedback loop is easier said than done, but there are a number of systems – everything from systems like Weight Watchers, which have always depended on positive feedback loops as part of the overall regime, to the new class of wearable devices that help consumers measure their movements, measure their sleep, and record their food consumption. These systems are already in place, and they might easily be modified to record the consumption of specific foods.

Another obvious and related area where PETA can innovate is gamification – creating incentives for the desired behavior. Imagine a system that not only helps you create and maintain a feedback loop but rewards you as well. I spoke to a friend tonight about the PETA campaign, and he noted: “It’s one thing for Patricia De León to entice you to think about vegetarianism. But it would be even more interesting if you could meet a Patricia De León in a network of single Latinos looking for vegetarian soul mates.”

Hmm, an intriguing thought, but perhaps beyond the scope of PETA’s mission. An easier path for the organization is to make it easy for meat eaters to make smaller changes to their diet. In behavior design lingo, the unbundling of big behavioral patterns into smaller, more digestible components (pardon the pun) is the management and modification of “tiny habits.”

Here’s one tiny habit that has huge potential impact: the preparation of a Puerto Rican dish known as mofongo. A plantain mash that depends heavily on fat to moisten an otherwise dry (and inedible) meal, mofongo typically includes fatback or bacon as part of the recipe. But as one up-and-coming restaurateur in Northern California has discovered – Marisol Hernandez of Sol Food – you can make a mean mofongo without any animal fat whatsoever (instead, you can use olive oil). In fact, she calls it a “vegan mofongo.” It’s an odd juxtaposition of words – in fact, the word vegan sounds odd on any Puerto Rican menu – but the dish works and it has in fact recruited a number of new believers, myself included.

Can PETA get Latinos to stop eating meat? Not sure. But I’ll bet PETA can get Latinos to eat less meat. In the end, the organization is in the business of protecting animals. If it can do that one dish at a time, I’d call that success.

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