How I baited the media into showing slaughterhouse footage to over 200,000 people
How a media stunt got covered on some of the biggest websites in the world, and ended with hundreds of thousands of people getting their first glimpse inside a slaughterhouse.
On July 3rd I woke up on the floor of a friend’s house in Louisville, Kentucky. I looked at my phone, then my email, and knew something big was happening.
In a few minutes I was on the phone with an IT guy monitoring the server hosting a certain website – one that was getting some staggering traffic.
“I’ve never seen anything like this…” he said.
“Where’s the traffic coming from?” I asked.
“It’s coming from…. everywhere. At this rate, you could hit half-a-million visitors by midnight.”
Fox News. The Observer. Gawker. Boing Boing. The LA Weekly. Daily Mail. Yahoo News. MSN. The New York Post. Some of the biggest sites in the world were covering a stunt that went bigger than we ever intended. Our plan had worked a little too well.
ExVegans.com was mainstream news.
From concept to mainstream news in 30 days
It started out as a late night joke. It evolved into a rough plan to bait the non-vegan blogosphere into watching slaughterhouse footage. And it turned into something much, much bigger.
In the end, it became the best vegan education effort I’ve ever been a part of. The results say it all: Redirecting over 200,000 visitors of mainstream news sites to a video of graphic slaughterhouse footage, and in the process creating an untold number of vegans and vegetarians.
Disclaimer in the interest of accuracy: My role in ExVegans.com was a supporting one, and I can’t take credit for site design or content. The opinions here may or may not represent those of all the parties involved.
The idea came late one night in a discussion about the online vitriol caused by author Alex Jamieson announcing she was no longer vegan. The tremendous buzz from this ho-hum development indicated there was a huge amount of pent-up animosity towards ex-vegans. The amateur trend-spotter in me saw potential for a viral phenomenon.
The concept was a user-submitted site of former vegans called “The Vegan Sellout List.” Users of the site filled out a form describing a former vegan (including their city, years they’d been vegan, and the story behind their rise and fall from veganism), and submitted the entry for approval.
Approved entries were added to the site. The front page displayed a rollover map where viewers could click on a state and view all the ex-vegans in that state who had been added to the list. You could call it an online directory of former-vegans,or just a vegan gossip site. As a concept, it was fairly simple.
(This idea is not new. There have been two previous attempts at such a site that I’m aware of. Both got little traction and came and went quickly.)
“The Vegan Sellout List” was offensive. It was provocative. It was shameless. It was impossible not to have an opinion on. And it would be impossible for the blogosphere to ignore.
To understand the strategy behind the site, you have to understand the work of a man named Ryan Holiday. A self-identified “media manipulator”, Holiday gets paid huge retainers by celebrities and companies to manufacture totally staged controversy, then provoke the media into covering it, which in turn generates massive publicity for his clients.
I read Holiday’s book Trust Me I’m Lying, and immediately saw the massive potential to apply Holiday’s approach (using contrived controversy to generate huge media) to my work for animals. I insisted several friends read the book, and the response was always the same: Why isn’t the animal rights movement doing this?
In its most basic form, Holiday’s model involves what he calls “chaining”: Creating fake & contoversial news, provoking small blogs into covering it, which is in turn covered by larger blogs, moving “up the chain” until it becomes mainstream news.
My lips are sealed as to what happened next, but immediately after reading his book a couple of us used Holiday’s blueprint to generate coverage for animals in a major media market, bringing a spotlight on an urgent issue that impacts millions of animals. (Again, I’m being intentionally vague.)
We were hooked. And we decided to follow this stunt up with a more ambitious project: ExVegans.com.
Taking it viral
Taken straight from the Trust Me I’m Lying playbook, this was the blueprint:
- Get the vegan community talking about ExVegans.com.
- Parlay the buzz into coverage in the non-vegan blogosphere (provoked via anonymous emails, a provocative press release, etc.)
- Exploit the controversy to move it “up the chain” to bigger sites until we hit something that generated serious traffic from the non-vegan demographic.
- Pull a “bait and switch” and put slaughterhouse and factory farm footage front-and-center on the site, making it impossible not to watch.
There was never a question that something this controversial would generate major buzz. The trick was whether it was provocative enough to get mainstream coverage.
From the beginning, we agreed to call it a success if we got covered by Gawker. That was the prize. This kind of sensationalism is exactly the kind of thing Gawker loves.
In a matter of weeks, Gawker ran the story.
We never anticipated it would get even bigger than that.
The calm before the storm
The site had barely gone up when, on June 10th, the online water-cooler for ex-vegetarians & vegans – LetThemEatMeat.com – did an article on ExVegans.com. The piece was (of course) critical but (impressively) non-hostile, and drove traffic to the site from a few dozen unique hits a day to over 1,000.
…and then came the storm
From Let Them Eat Meat, everything followed the Ryan Holiday trajectory to the letter, moving up the chain to bigger and bigger blogs, before blowing up into mainstream news. The exact chronology is a little fuzzy, because I wasn’t directly involved in site maintenance and hadn’t monitored traffic or incoming links in almost 2 weeks. So I really don’t know where it started.
All I know is, the site went from 5,000 unique views a day to several hundred thousand (or more) in 72 hours.
Once sites like Jezebel and Boing Boing picked it up, the traffic tidal-wave began crashing the site. We weren’t prepared for the media onslaught. At points, the server was showing nearly a thousand unique views each minute.
Some of the biggest websites in the world were linking directly to ExVegans.com.
As an animal advocate, what do you do if you have a massive mainstream audience willing to give you a few seconds of their time?
Pull a bait-and-switch and show them slaughterhouse footage.
I took all the traffic, visitors estimated in the hundreds of thousands, and redirected them right to a video called “Meet Your Meat.”
Cows strung up and having their throats slit. Chickens packed six to a cage in egg farms. Pigs wasting away in small metal crates. It was exactly the kind of images animal advocates spend our lives working to force into the eyes and minds of the public.
I redirected the URL, and in a moment I had some of the biggest websites in the world linking directly to graphic footage of slaughterhouses and factory farms.
A simple (and offensive) site had succeeded in bringing the slaughterhouse to America’s living room.
I’ll admit I haven’t monitored online chatter about ExVegans.com from within the vegan sphere, but after 19 years in these circles I have no doubt there was massive condemnation, and that a ton of people were groaning the ExVegans.com stunt “made us look bad.”
I’m not going to spend more than a few words defending the site, for two reasons:
- It is vindicated by the results it achieved.
- You either get it or you don’t.
Most vitriol the site received was probably predicated on a false assumption: That ExVegans.com was somehow intended to promote veganism through public shaming. It should be obvious, but for those who don’t have a clue, I’ll spell it out: That wasn’t the point.
I will not defend the concept of ExVegans.com. In and of itself it offered nothing positive to the world. It didn’t even pretend to.
What I will defend (and I doubt many critics will argue with) is the outcome: Hundreds of thousands of people baited into watching horrific footage of the suffering behind their “food”.
This massive outreach victory, to me, is all that matters.
What could have been done better
First, being prepared for the traffic before it happened. Getting “Meet Your Meat” onto the front page of the site would have generated more views (and less confusion) than redirecting to a third-party site. In the end, the traffic brought down the server and a URL-redirect was the only option.
Maintaining full oversight over the content. While I had an editorial role, I wasn’t behind updating the site. Some of the entries submitted were a little too offensive and really shouldn’t have been posted. Same for the “Mission Statement” (the most highly-trafficked page on the site), which should have been better worded to resonate with a mainstream audience. (It could also be argued the over-the-top language was responsible for the media coverage, so this may have been for the best.)
Stricter fact-checking. Some of the ex-vegan submissions had errors, either through a deliberate effort at misinformation by the (anonymous) submitters, or honest mistakes. Either way, allowing inaccurate information on the site was inexcusable.
In the end, all of this was trumped by the results: At least 200,000 mainstream omnivores baiting into viewing slaughterhouse and factory farm footage.
The future of ExVegans.com
The media-storm has passed, and I consider the entire stunt to be “mission accomplished.” Best to walk away from things while they’re still on a high note.
The site is still getting serious traffic, and all of it is redirecting to “Meet Your Meat.” That’s where it will remain… for now.
Ultimately, where it goes is not entirely in my hands. There is some conflicting discussion, and those who designed the site are not bound by my input. If it is ever brought back, I asked that the webmasters do it transparently and in their name to avoid any confusion as to my role.
That’s where my part ends. I’m bowing out of this while the animals are still ahead.
Endnote: Overselling my point
And if you’re a vegan who is still upset the coverage made you “look bad,” I’ll put money on one thing: Before last week, you believed the temperature in Hell would have to hit 32 degrees before FoxNews.com would ever link to this: