Online Ads

Below is a brief summary of our evaluation of online ads. See our full evaluation for more details on how it performed on our criteria. This intervention report was published in 2016. You can see an archived version of our old report on online ads here.

Overview

Animal advocacy organizations use online advertisements, sometimes referred to as veg ads or just online ads, to inspire viewers to adopt more animal-friendly behaviors and attitudes. We will focus on ads that promote veg eating in this intervention report while considering other secondary outcomes, primarily raising support for an organization since this can easily be combined with a veg eating message. For example, organizations can include a Facebook Like button on the landing page.1 We focus on the type of online ads run by our current top-rated charities: Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, and Animal Equality.

We believe that online ads are probably successful, to some extent, in changing individual consumption and increasing social media presence. Even if the per-person consumption change is small, the low cost and easy testability2 of online ads could make them highly cost-effective.

We think they have relatively weak secondary effects, such as building the animal advocacy movement and increasing the likelihood of a major social shift away from factory farming. Additionally, by framing veg eating as a personal choice, online ads might dampen the strength of animal-friendly social norms in society. For example, online ads might reduce the view of veg eating as a moral imperative. Overall, we think this potential indirect harm is outweighed by the benefit of the general promotion of animal-friendly ideas.

What Are Online Ads?

We use the term “online ads” to refer to any form of online advertising with an animal protection message. Usually, an organization or individual pays to have an image and/or text displayed to users who are not visiting the site specifically to view pro-animal materials, and users who click on the image and/or text are directed to a new website that provides persuasive materials encouraging the user to adopt more animal-friendly behaviors and attitudes. We focus on ads that are primarily aimed at encouraging users to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products. The ads usually take one of two approaches to achieve this outcome:

  • Bring viewers to a page showing a video describing the cruel treatment of animals raised for food, often with a personal story encouraging users to take action against this cruelty by changing their diet.3
  • Bring viewers to a page with a text description of the benefits of veg eating, as well as the large number of people participating, and highlights the offer for a free Vegetarian Starter Guide (or other materials).4

The latter approach (VSG ads) has been used only relatively recently, but due to its high efficiency of getting viewers to pledge to go vegetarian, it is likely to be used more in the future.5

The landing page can include a short sign-up form, where users can pledge to go vegetarian and/or receive more information via email. The emails the user receives usually cover topics such as (i) how to transition smoothly to a vegetarian diet, (ii) how to order meatless meals while eating out, and (iii) popular alternative meats, such as veggie burgers. The user is invited to reach out to the advertising organization with questions or comments.6

The landing page can have a social media widget for users to like or follow the advertising organization, which can lead to more engagement in the future.7

What Are Their Strengths?

Online ads reach a large number of people for a relatively low per-person cost. 1000 impressions (the ad is shown to users 1000 times) can be purchased for as low as $0.19 on a regular basis.8 There is also data showing that a significant number (roughly 0.3% to 3.8%9 ) of these users click on the ads, and a significant number (roughly 2.6% to 41.4%10 ) of those users then enter their email address and pledge to go vegetarian. Even if we think a small fraction of users actually change their diets because of the ads, the low costs could still make it a highly cost-effective way of changing individual diets. The staff costs are also low, given that one capable ads manager can run a very large number of ads.11

Online ads also have relatively short feedback loops, meaning program managers can quickly see results of an ads campaign—measured in cost-per-click or cost-per-conversion12 —and adjust the campaign to optimize these outcomes.13 For example, they can try using different images and text in the ad, or target different demographics. This can be done over a period or weeks or months with very large sample sizes.14 Taking this approach of experimentation and optimization seems essential to running a highly cost-effective ads program.15

By emailing users who took the pledge, and having them follow the social media presence of the advertising organization, online ads could lead to increased activism, at least in small ways like sharing animal advocacy content or signing petitions.

It’s not clear which factors make online ads more cost-effective, in terms of cost-per-conversion, because it varies so much based on demographics and when the ads are ran. One relatively clear trend is that the most receptive demographic is often young women.16, 17 Also, ads run in Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America tend to have low cost-per-conversion.18

Another important finding has been the high cost-effectiveness of VSG ads, described above.19 It is possible that VSG ads could have lower rates of dietary change per conversion, which would make them less exciting, but we don’t see any compelling reasons to think that.

What Are Their Weaknesses?

We think online ads have relatively weak secondary effects, such as building the animal advocacy movement and increasing the likelihood of a major social shift away from factory farming. By framing veg eating as a personal choice, online ads might dampen the strength of animal-friendly social norms in society,20 but we think this potential indirect harm is outweighed by the benefit of the general promotion of animal-friendly ideas.

It is also unclear what effect online ads have on their primary outcome, dietary change.21 The argument of, “Even if we think a small fraction of users actually change their diets because of the ads, the low costs could still make it a highly cost-effective way of changing individual diets,” isn’t particularly strong. We would favor an intervention that has a similar calculated cost-effectiveness based on a simplified quantitative perspective, but higher per-person costs and higher per-person impact.22 If you think social advocacy in general, especially that which is based in a brief interaction like an ad view, is generally ineffective, such that you would need robust evidence of a positive impact to see it as worthwhile, then the lack of robust evidence of the impact of online ads is a major downside.

What about Long Term Effects?

Possible Positive Effects

As mentioned in the previous section, we think the positive long term outcomes of online ads are likely quite limited. It is possible that simply by reaching a large number of individuals in the general public, ads can create a meaningful shift in the overall public attitudes towards animals. This shift could increase the chances of success for other advocacy efforts and policy change in the future. Online ads and similar forms of outreach could have contributed to the current perception in the U.S. that farm animals are frequently mistreated for commercial gain.23, 24 We would guess that other forces, such as undercover investigations, have been a stronger driver in the opposition to factory farming due to media coverage and a more society-focused message, but it is very difficult to tease out causation from observation of social trends.25

Possible Negative Effects

As with possible positive long term effects, we have much uncertainty about the possible negative long term effects.

If online ads are successful in changing people’s attitudes, it is possible that the set of attitude changes they create could involve some negative attitudes. For example, if the ad frames the problems of animal agriculture as having an individual solution—going vegetarian—that could also increase people’s belief that society-wide action is inappropriate. This can be framed as seeing veg eating as a personal choice or as a social imperative. We speculate that online ads have a net positive impact on people’s views of veg eating as a social imperative, but note the opposite outcome as a possible negative long term effect.

In addition to a focus on individual dietary change, online ads tend to focus on vegetarianism or a reduction in consumption, rather than complete veganism. Some contest that this approach dilutes the message of animal advocates and makes it more difficult in the long run to convince people of the seriousness of animal suffering.26 We also recognize this concern, but haven’t seen convincing evidence that it outweighs the potential benefits of reducetarian/vegetarian messaging, such as a lower barrier to entry for the animal advocacy movement that could increase total support and momentum.

Conclusions

Overall we think ads seem to have limited long-term and indirect benefits, which is likely where a majority of the potential impact lies in animal advocacy. We think the short, impersonal interactions of online ads programs have less of an effect on, e.g. creating new activists, than other forms of outreach. Also concerning are the potential negative impacts of online ads, at least in their current form, such as shifting attitudes towards veg eating as a personal choice rather than a social imperative.

Do We Recommend It? Why or Why Not?

We currently don’t recommend that organizations create new online ads programs or expand existing programs, at least when that funding could be used for more promising interventions such as corporate outreach and undercover investigations. We feel that the main upside of online ads, reaching a large number of people at very low costs, is outweighed by the concerns of low and uncertain per-viewer impact and the limited long term and indirect benefits. Even if we focus entirely on short-term impact, corporate outreach still seems more promising. However, if corporate outreach becomes more difficult in the future, e.g. once cage-free reforms are fully implemented, then online ads or other forms of dietary change outreach might be justified as the most cost-effective intervention for short term impact. We think that some ads programs, such as those that run VSG ads or have spent significant time minimizing their cost-per-pledge, tend to be more promising than others.

What Are Characteristics of a Strong Online Ads Campaign?

  • Because the cost-effectiveness of online ads measured in cost-per-conversion varies greatly and unpredictably,27 it seems that adaptiveness and experimentation are key in a successful online ads campaign.
  • Some online ads have pro-veg messages in the ads themselves, instead of a message solely focused on creating clicks such as “Check out this crazy video!” We think the benefit of pro-veg messages, having a potential impact on all viewers instead of just those that click on the ads, is probably worth any potential cost to click rates.28, 29
  • Online ads managers tend to find that the most receptive demographic is young women,30 and that ads run in Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America tend to have the lowest cost-per-conversion.31, 32 However, it’s still important not to count on these trends, and for ads managers to continuously test different demographics.
  • We also agree with ads managers that the recent use of VSG ads described above is likely a substantial improvement in cost-effectiveness. These ads show much lower cost-per-conversion, which likely corresponds to a similar increase in veg eating per dollar of funding, and we encourage more groups to adopt a similar strategy in their online ads programs.
  • We think a large online ads program can save substantially on staff costs because most of the labor involved in ads, such as testing different campaigns and designing materials, is required whether running a small or large number of ads.

How Strong Is the Evidence about the Efficiency of Online Ads?

Online ads managers are able to directly track the rates at which people click on the ads and subsequently pledge to go vegetarian and/or enter their email address for more information.33 We have little reason to doubt the validity of these measures.

There is limited evidence that these intermediate outcomes lead to reductions in the consumption of animal products. There are anecdotes, such as from people who email advertising organizations thanking them for running the ads and saying how they changed their diets.34

We think the evidence is quite clear that, on average, dietary change leads to a reduction in suffering for farm animals. Although we cannot directly observe the process, we see no reason to believe that animal products are an exception to the basic economics of supply and demand.

Resources

Conversation with Jose Valle
Conversation with Alan Darer
Conversation with Cat Liguori and Andrea Gunn
Conversation with Josh Kalla


  1. For example, Mercy for Animals includes a Facebook like button on this landing page

  2. By “easy testability,” we mean that it’s relatively easy for organizations running online ads to test different images, text, etc. and optimize their approach for intermediate outcomes, such as the number of ad-viewers who pledge to go vegetarian. 

  3. Examples: meatvideo.com, carnevideo.com, whosagainstanimalcruelty.org, descubrirlacomida.com 

  4. Example: chooseveg.com/vsg-landing 

  5. “One of these new approaches tried in 2015 was creating a landing page that allowed people to pledge to go vegetarian and download the [Vegetarian Starter Guide], but did not have the factory farming video. This also allowed us to make the text and picture of the Facebook ads reflect the offer of the free VSG instead of the video. Running this type of ad led to a massive drop in cost per conversion (initially to about ⅕ of the previous cost) and MFA’s cost per conversion has continued to decrease over time.” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  6. As part of this investigation, an ACE researcher signed up for these emails (from each of the three organizations) to see what they received. 

  7. For example, Mercy for Animals includes a Facebook like button on this landing page

  8. “CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions) $0.19” (Spanish THL Ads (Dec-Feb 2016) ) - Conversation with Cat Liguori and Andrea Gunn 

  9. These are the lowest and highest figures found based on calculations from the cost per 1,000 impressions and cost per click figures in these conversations: Conversation with Jose Valle, Conversation with Alan Darer, Conversation with Cat Liguori and Andrea Gunn 

  10. These are the lowest and highest figures found based on calculations from the cost per 1,000 impressions and cost per click figures in these conversations: Conversation with Jose Valle, Conversation with Alan Darer, Conversation with Cat Liguori and Andrea Gunn 

  11. For example, Mercy for Animals will spend about $550,000 in online ads in 2016, which will be managed by one ads manager working on it for 15-20 hours per week with some minor commitments from other staff.

    “Alan usually spends about 10-20 hours per week working on ads in total, and another MFA staffer, Krystal Caldwell, regularly tests different landing pages in order to maximize the percentage of viewers who pledge.

    In 2016, they'll spend more — approximately $550,000 — because MFA’s budget is increasing overall and online ads still appear to be very cost-effective.” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  12. A “conversion” in this context is usually a user who enters their email address and pledges to go vegetarian. 

  13. “It’s important to have a mindset of constantly experimenting and improving the ads.” - Conversation with Cat Liguori and Andrea Gunn

    “An advertiser's persistence at analyzing the changing relationship between these factors and successful ads, and constantly testing new approaches and ideas, directly relates to success in sales (or veg pledges in the case of animal advocacy).” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  14. For example, “They looked into targeting supporters of other causes, such as cancer research, especially after new findings were announced linking meat consumption and cancer. However, the results of these refinements did not justify paying the additional fee imposed by Facebook to narrow the target audience.” - Conversation with Jose Valle 

  15. For example, “One of these new approaches tried in 2015 was creating a landing page that allowed people to pledge to go vegetarian and download the [Vegetarian Starter Guide], but did not have the factory farming video. This also allowed us to make the text and picture of the Facebook ads reflect the offer of the free VSG instead of the video. Running this type of ad led to a massive drop in cost per conversion (initially to about ⅕ of the previous cost) and MFA’s cost per conversion has continued to decrease over time.” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  16. “The ads have targeted young women between 24 and 34 years old who have animals or pets listed among their interests.” - Conversation with Jose Valle 

  17. After arguing that the demographics with the most vegetarians are also those in which it is easiest to convince additional people to become vegetarian, Nick Cooney reviews the evidence about which demographics those are. “Female vegetarians also outnumber their male counterparts at a roughly even amount in all age groups. Since young people are more likely to not eat meat than older people, young women should be more likely to be vegetarian than any other age and gender group. Indeed, studies have consistently found that to be the case.” Cooney, N. (2013). Who’s ditching meat?: Gender. Veganomics. 

  18. “MFA focuses their ads on Latin America because of the high cost-effectiveness, including cheap ad costs and high conversion rates, i.e. the proportion of people who pledge to go vegetarian and sign up with their email address after viewing an ad.

    Cost per click in Latin America is just 1-4 cents, whereas in America it can range between 15-25 cents.” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  19. “One of these new approaches tried in 2015 was creating a landing page that allowed people to pledge to go vegetarian and download the [Vegetarian Starter Guide], but did not have the factory farming video. This also allowed us to make the text and picture of the Facebook ads reflect the offer of the free VSG instead of the video. Running this type of ad led to a massive drop in cost per conversion (initially to about ⅕ of the previous cost) and MFA’s cost per conversion has continued to decrease over time.” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  20. If you've ever argued with someone who eats or kills animals, you must have heard, "it's my personal choice to eat meat!". Why then, are we making this argument for them? By framing animal rights as an issue of dietary change - titling animal rights leaflets "Your Choice", for example - rather than one of justice and equality, we set ourselves up for failure.” - Burns, B. “Why Beyonce Going Vegan is Bad for Animals.” 

  21. We have indirect evidence from (i) intermediate outcomes, such as people pledging to go vegetarian, (ii) evidence from other outreach activities outside of animal advocacy (see, for example, our Conversation with Josh Kalla), (iii) anecdotes, such as people who tell advertising organizations that they went vegetarian because of the ads, and (iv) general intuitions and understanding of psychology and sociology. Although we make do with the best evidence we have available, none of this evidence is robust. 

  22. Our reasons this include: (i) our Conversation with Josh Kalla indicated that “the more personal the communication the larger the effect size” was a general trend in political advocacy, (ii) deeper per-person communication seems to disproportionately increase the impact on secondary outcomes, such as activism and donations, (iii) we assign significant probability to a threshold model of advocacy, where people need a certain amount of interaction (e.g. 5 minutes of one-on-one conversation) to significantly change their attitudes and behavior, instead of a model where impact scales linearly with time. 

  23. We think most people who work on farm animal advocacy would agree with this claim based on their personal experiences interacting with the public. In general, we haven’t found very convincing survey evidence for or against the claim, but there is one survey that found “A total of 64% of survey respondents agree with the statement, ‘farmers and food companies put their own profits ahead of treating farm animal humanely.’” Lusk, J, Norwood, B.F., Prickett, R. (August 17, 2007). Consumer Preferences for Farm Animal Welfare: Results of a Nationwide Telephone Survey. Oklahoma State University. 

  24. Although we haven't performed a full analysis, it appears that public awareness of poor conditions for farmed animals has increased over the last 10–20 years. For instance, we think there has been more discussion of these issues in the media and through documentaries, and there has been more public reaction through seeking out "humane" alternatives and supporting legal and corporate policies that restrict certain practices. 

  25. These changes correspond to the growth of undercover investigations as a tactic, and the reactions of farmers, corporations, and the media indicate that these investigations have been one of the key drivers of changing attitudes. 

  26. “We have our greatest success in helping others go vegan if we discuss the implications of what we do to animals; the ethical argument is by far our strongest one. Large advocacy groups with access to considerable resources and large followings tell others that we should be asking people to reduce—rather than end—their exploitation, diluting our collective vegan message of social justice and undermining the ethical argument. Too many people are being taught that animal exploitation is okay in moderation, and that the best approach to having a vegan world is to not talk about veganism at all. Be aware of the source of this wrong-headed advocacy approach: pandering by large animal advocacy groups to those engaging in the exploitation.” Taft, C. (November 19, 2015). Mainstream Animal Advocacy Messages Framed By Those Doing The Harm. Vegan Publishers. 

  27. “One of these new approaches tried in 2015 was creating a landing page that allowed people to pledge to go vegetarian and download the [Vegetarian Starter Guide], but did not have the factory farming video. This also allowed us to make the text and picture of the Facebook ads reflect the offer of the free VSG instead of the video. Running this type of ad led to a massive drop in cost per conversion (initially to about ⅕ of the previous cost) and MFA’s cost per conversion has continued to decrease over time.” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  28. One study, done in the context of retail advertising, showed that “78% of the increase [in advertising profitability] derives from consumers who never click the ads.” Lewis, R., Reiley, D. (May 28, 2014). Online ads and offline sales: measuring the effect of retail advertising via a controlled experiment on Yahoo!. Quantitative Marketing and Economics. 

  29. We do not have data for the difference in click rate for these ads, but Mercy for Animals doesn’t recall a drop in click rates after they adopted pro-veg or “anti-meat” messages. In another example, Mercy for Animals has seen an increase in cost-per-click with their Vegetarian Starter Guide ads (from about $0.026 to $0.041), but this has been outweighed by an increase in conversion rate once on the landing page (from about 3.3% to 40.0%). - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  30. “The ads have targeted young women between 24 and 34 years old who have animals or pets listed among their interests.” - Conversation with Jose Valle 

  31. “MFA focuses their ads on Latin America because of the high cost-effectiveness, including cheap ad costs and high conversion rates, i.e. the proportion of people who pledge to go vegetarian and sign up with their email address after viewing an ad.

    Cost per click in Latin America is just 1–4 cents, whereas in America it can range between 15–25 cents.” - Conversation with Alan Darer 

  32. THL gave us the following information for the cost-per-conversion in different languages/regions where they run ads:

    • Spanish (video ads): $0.55
    • Spanish (VSG ads): $0.09
    • Hindi: $7.08
    • Mandarin: $7.68
    • Russian: $3.79 (note that this was data is from a different time period due to technical issues, and historically the Russian campaign has actually been the most expensive)

     

  33. Each of the organizations we interviewed for this review about their online ads program gave us this information: Conversation with Jose Valle, Conversation with Alan Darer, Conversation with Cat Liguori and Andrea Gunn 

  34. “Mercy for Animals currently receives about 800 emails a week from people replying to emails in our email series who have specific questions about eating vegetarian or vegan and we provide personalized support and answers. Many people also thank us for the meat-free tips and recipes.” - Conversation with Alan Darer