David Bowen: Hearts, minds and animal rights

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Animal welfare is on the front pages again, with GlaxoSmithKline’s shareholders targeted by letters demanding they sell their shares and the British prime minister signing a petition supporting animal research. There is a struggle for hearts and minds, and much of it is being fought on the web. Protest groups claimed the medium for themselves years ago, and have tended to run rings round their corporate targets. Now the targets are fighting back – not least with an online version of the petition. How goes the battle?

GSK scored brownie points last week when it reacted quickly and robustly to the shareholder letters, giving clear instructions to anyone who received one. At least some of these points came from the speed with which it posted those instructions on its site (www.gsk.com). Some shareholders will have seen them directly, others via the press – which in turn will have pulled them off the internet. GSK has since added more details – its site is the obvious place to look for anyone seeking its take on the story.

This is just the latest skirmish in the fight between anti-vivisection groups and their enemies. The first point of engagement these days is Google, where both sides are doing their best to get their links at the top of the results page. The easiest way to do this is to buy a prominent placement through ‘pay per click’ – each time someone clicks on your link, you pay Google money. I assumed that would give the corporates an edge, because here is one online area where wealth can count – but I was forgetting that big protest organisations, especially in the US, have a few pennies too.

Type ‘animal testing or ‘vivisection’ into Google and you are likely to see sponsored links pointing to both www.medicalprogress.org and www.stopanimaltests.com. The Coalition for Medical Progress says its role is to ‘help explain the case for medical progress and the benefits brought about by animal research’. It is a British organisation, and is backed by scientific associations, government (including the Medical Research Council), a union (Amicus) and pharmaceutical companies. It includes features on the research where it says animal testing is required, FAQs (a little thin) and most fascinating, the Animal House. This uses Flash-driven videos to show what goes on inside a testing centre and mixes the fluffy (puppies playing with balls) with the somewhat gruesome (a recently put-down rat). It is a low key but sophisticated approach that will, it seems to me, serve its cause well.

So, though, will StopAnimalTests.com, which is run by US-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), ‘the largest animal rights organization in the world’. Here we have truly gruesome videos, a Life in a Laboratory section, lists of companies that do and don’t test on animals, and lots of encouragement to donate and join the activist network. No attempt to be low key here. Shock is the weapon, and it too works.

An even match so far. The UK petition, set up by the Coalition for Medical Progress and signed with much publicity by Tony Blair, is an unusual example of the ‘targets’ outgunning their harrassers. Its website (www.thepeoplespetition.org) encourages sign-up and uses a simple ‘e-mail a friend’ device to spread it around – they would call that viral marketing in another context. On Wednesday the site said that 18,451 people had signed up.

But if this has been a high profile success for the companies, the protestors know how to play the long game – harrying their enemy with every trick in the book. One of their most hated companies is Huntingdon Life Sciences. Type in the obvious web address, www.huntingdonlifesciences.com, and you are faced with a picture of dog wrapped in a bandage under the slogan ‘Making Pain Profitable’. The next page, interestingly, offers a choice between an Official and an Unofficial link. The former goes to the company site (www.huntingdon.com), while the latter leads to Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. This has its own address (www.shac.net) but it has also grabbed both the .com and .net addresses for the full company name. HLS clearly missed out on the basics of domain name registration years ago, and is still paying the price (though I suspect the choice of links owes something to a legal letter or six).

In different ways, both the official and the unofficial sites are powerful. The Shac site has the horror stories we might expect, while the Huntingdon site has a substantial and accessibly-written section justifying its animal testing. But apart from a small link to the People’s Petition, it does not try to tap the CMP, even though it helps fund it.

This is a sign that the companies are still behind the protestors in their understanding of the web. I looked at the sites of pharmaceutical groups that support the CMP and could not find any links to its site – a pretty basic failure. By contrast, the protestors are so geared to the medium that they will not miss a trick. RDS is another pro-test organisation in the UK. Its site (www.rds-online.org.uk) is less slick than the CMP one, but tries to do the same job under the tagline Understanding Animal Research in Medicine. But if you were looking for it a year ago and missed the ‘uk’ off the address, you would find yourself at a ‘spoof’ site headed Understanding Cruelty in Medicine.

This is the sort of tactic companies need to know about. They are, to come back to my military metaphor, marching along the valleys while the protestors launch guerrilla raids from the hills. Companies may not be able to copy their tactics but at least by knowing what they are likely to be, they can defend themselves a little more effectively.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com.

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