Leafleting

Leafleting is a common and cost-effective method of vegan and vegetarian outreach. Various organizations, including both of our top charities, provide veg advocacy literature or send teams to distribute that literature on sidewalks and college campuses. Individuals can also easily obtain leaflets to distribute on their own and it takes only a small time commitment to do so, making leafleting alone or with a group a promising intervention.

How Leafleting Works

To run a leafleting campaign, an organization needs leaflets and volunteers or staff members who are available to hand them out. Some organizations create their own leaflets, while others use materials designed by other groups, and still others use their own materials in combination with leaflets obtained from another group. Vegan Outreach exemplifies the first type of organization. Their long-running leafleting outreach program has undergone many iterations, and some of their leaflets are among the most commonly used today. The Humane League and Mercy For Animals, our top-recommended organizations, fit into the third group, distributing their own guides to veg eating alongside veg advocacy leaflets produced by other groups. Individuals can get involved with a leafleting campaign by ordering their own leaflets to distribute from organizations like Vegan Outreach, often at little or no cost.

Typical leafleting campaigns target college campuses, music festivals, and other public areas, especially those frequented by young adults. Leafleters stand on the sidewalk offering literature to anyone who passes or get more creative, for example offering vegan food along with the leaflets or combining a leafleting campaign with a pay-per-view video stand. The leaflets themselves present a variety of arguments for avoiding animal products, generally centered around the cruelty animals experience on factory farms, and also list resources that help interested readers learn more and act on the information provided by changing their diet.

Leafleting interventions are moderately easy to scale. Each additional leaflet is fairly cheap; currently, Vegan Outreach asks for 11-25 cents depending on the specific booklet for at-cost distribution of their materials. Many leaflets are distributed by volunteers with little or no training, and instructions for leafleters are available in several places online. However, selecting locations for leafleting, assessing when a location has been saturated with leaflets, and recruiting volunteers or staff to leaflet are non-trivial problems which could potentially slow growth of a leafleting program. Vegan Outreach distributes almost 3 million booklets each year, with most of them being handed out on college campuses. Their statistics go back to 1995, and they have experienced periods of extremely rapid growth and also periods of little or no growth; we don't know whether the periods of slow growth are attributable to lack of funding or to other resource constraints (lack of volunteers, lack of sites to expand to), but we know that in some circumstances, fast growth is possible.1

General Impact Assessment

The existing evidence on the impact of leafleting is among the strongest bodies of evidence bearing on animal advocacy methods. Because leafleting has been implemented on a large scale and requires significant involvement by individuals, a great deal of anecdotal evidence is available, but it is difficult to coordinate this into an estimate of impact. Two quantitative studies have also been conducted, one by The Humane League in cooperation with Farm Sanctuary and the other by ACE.

The Humane League and Farm Sanctuary study surveyed college students who remembered receiving a leaflet during the semester of the survey. Only 1 of the 486 respondents reported stopping eating all categories of meat mentioned (chicken, beef/pork, and fish/seafood), but many more reported stopping consumption of one or more of those categories since receiving a leaflet earlier in the semester, with 8 respondents saying they stopped eating chicken, 16 saying they stopped eating beef/pork, 5 saying they stopped eating fish, and smaller numbers cutting out eggs and dairy.2 Still more respondents reported significantly changing their consumption of one or more kinds of animal product (saying they ate "a lot less" of the product since receiving the booklet), but it is difficult to interpret what, exactly, these respondents meant. Ignoring partial reductions in consumption entirely, this would be equivalent to about 5 respondents going vegetarian, which is 1% of the sample. A more accurate calculation of impact would also include partial reductions, but for this study we are not sure how to count these. Also missing from this analysis is an account of the response bias and social desirability bias that may have affected the survey results. These numbers can, however, be compared fairly directly to other surveys that explicitly seek to measure the impact of an intervention on diet, such as the surveys sent by The Humane League to viewers who had liked their videos as part of their online ad campaign.

ACE's study used a smaller sample of students who had viewed a leaflet, but supplemented it with a control group. In this study, respondents who had received a leaflet were more likely than those in the control group to stop eating poultry or red meat, but no more likely to stop eating other animal products. There was also no difference found in the total change in consumption of animal products between the two groups. These results support our conservative conclusions from the previous study, but don't support more dramatic conclusions that include the effects of partial reductions in meat consumption.

Impact Calculator

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Impacts of Specific Factors

Relatively little is known about the comparative effectiveness of different leaflets or elements of a leaflet or leafleting program. The study by Farm Sanctuary and The Humane League, cited above, distributed two different leaflets, Vegan Outreach's Compassionate Choices and Farm Sanctuary's Something Better. The researchers did find a difference3 in effectiveness between the two leaflets. The reported reduction in animals consumed was about twice as much for respondents who had received Something Better leaflets than for those who had received Compassionate Choices, a difference unlikely to have arisen entirely by chance.4 However, and the researchers did not provide a theory to explain what difference between the booklets they believed to be responsible for the difference in efficacy. Furthermore, since many students reported having also received Compassionate Choices in a previous semester while Something Better was a new leaflet design, it is not clear whether any real difference is due to intrinsic properties of the leaflets or simply due to the novelty of Something Better.

Some research does suggest specific factors that impact the effectiveness of leaflet distribution, but that have not yet been tested in the field. We discuss some of these factors below.

Readability

Logic suggests that a leaflet will be most effective if its audience is able to read and understand the entire argument it presents. A study conducted by the Faunalytics found serious problems in this area with a variety of vegan and vegetarian outreach literature. Researchers tested the literature with various reading level scales and found that all of the material was written at or above the 11th grade level.5 However, the average American adult reads at about a 10th grade level, with a substantial proportion of the population reading at a 7th or 8th grade level. Even the average college graduate reads at just a bit over a 12th grade level.6 This means that the existing literature is challenging to read even for a target population that is relatively highly educated such as in leafleting efforts at colleges. If the target population of a program is not highly educated (for instance, if the program is targeted at the general population or at high school students), much of the existing literature is too difficult.

Additional comprehension problems can arise when materials are not available in a language the target population is comfortable with. While most leafleting efforts in the US target young people who attend (or are likely to attend) schools where English is the primary language of instruction, programs targeting audiences for whom English is a second language may be more successful when literature in other languages is available. Vegan Outreach currently has one Spanish-language leaflet in their catalog.

Title and cover design

Since the title and cover design of a leaflet affect both willingness to take the leaflet and interest in actually reading it, careful consideration is warranted when deciding on these variables. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people might be less likely to take a leaflet if difficult or disturbing images are prominent on its cover.7 Additionally, some psychological research finds that people avoid encountering arguments they think will lead them to conclude they need to make behavioral changes.8 For this reason, people may be less likely to accept or read leaflets that clearly signal that they will ask for such changes (for instance, by the presence of "vegan" or "vegetarian" in their titles).9 On the other hand, a leaflet whose cover and title send clear messages may affect people who see it but do not read it; more study is needed.

Informational content

There are a wide variety of dimensions in which the interior content of a leaflet can vary and currently little information about which persuasive strategies are most effective. Humane League Labs is currently running a study to find which combinations of messages are most effective. That study involves specially constructed leaflets that emphasize either how or why to reduce consumption of animal products, either health or animal reasons for doing so, and either reduction of all animal products or of only chicken and eggs. The full study involves eight leaflet designs to test which combination of all three factors leads to the largest expected impact in terms of animal lives affected.

Conclusions

Leafleting is a promising and relatively well-studied area of intervention. ACE encourages this intervention, both for its overall effectiveness and due to its good potential to involve new activists.

Resources

Cooney, N. (January 15, 2013). The powerful impact of college leafleting.

Faunalytics. (2011). Readability of vegan outreach literature.

ACE study and analysis

Humane League Labs. (July 19, 2013). Report: Which leaflet is more effective?

Humane League Labs. (July 19, 2013). In Progress: What elements make a leaflet more effective?

Vegan Outreach. Tips for leafleting.



  1. In 2012, Vegan Outreach's Adopt a College program distributed 2,588,629 leaflets. From 2003-2008, the number of leaflets distributed grew rapidly, but totals remained relatively consistent between 2008 and 2010. Statistics from the AAC website

  2. Cooney, N. (January 15, 2013). The powerful impact of college leafleting, parts 1 and 2

  3. Humane League Labs. (July 19, 2013). Report: Which leaflet is more effective? 

  4. Humane League Labs. (July 19, 2013). Report: Which leaflet is more effective? 

  5. Faunalytics. (2011). Readability of vegan outreach literature

  6. Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., Jin, Y., Boyle, B., Hsu, Y. C., & Dunleavy, E. (2007). Literacy in everyday life: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. NCES 2007-490. National Center for Education Statistics. For a discussion of how scores used in this assessment translate to grade levels, see also Faunalytics. (2011). Readability of Vegan Outreach Literature

  7. An email report from a volunteer with the Fall 2013 leafleting study whose team distributed leaflets with scenes from factory farms on the cover included the following: "Several students looked down and saw the images of the leaflets and immediately made a disgusted, mad, or sad face, many shaking their heads furiously, and either quickly moved away from us as fast as possible or said, "No thank-you," or "No." Kristin had a great idea! She noticed that if she turned the leaflet down where the students didn't see the cover and saw the back first, they were much more happily obliged to take the leaflet from either of us." Agiris, G. (September 28 2013). Personal communication. 

  8. Shaw, L. L., Batson, C. D., & Todd, R. M. (1994). Empathy avoidance: Forestalling feeling for another in order to escape the motivational consequences

  9. Cooney, N. A rose by any other name? What psychology research can tell us about Vegan Outreach booklet titles