‘Udder Truth’ Campaign Erases Worker & Animal Abuse, Forecasts Media’s Future

If you’ve been on YouTube lately, presumably to watch replays of Bernie Sanders’s “Enough with the damn emails!” rant or Lil Dicky’s “$ave Dat Money” music video, you may have been forced to watch this ad before proceeding to your movie entertainment:

It’s a teaser trailer for The Udder Truth, a dairy industry campaign supported by the USDA-supported organization for the promotion of dairy sales known as Dairy Management Inc. If you were drawn all the way onto The Udder Truth website, you likely found a series of video interviews with a few handpicked dairy farmers, decrying “the myths” and “the lies about the dairy industry,” showing the cameramen around their farms to somehow prove that “nothing could be further from the truth.”

But the whole series is staged with about as much integrity as Ja Rule’s episode of MTV Cribs (spoiler: that’s not his house).

The dairy industry has faced heightening complaints about its conduct, in part from bleeding-heart Millennials whose social media slacktivism has publicized abuses in many industries, food especially. Of course, dairy has been faced with real activism too, targeting the industry’s treatment of workers and cows, its corporatization, its use of antibiotics, and its water and air pollution–but here in cyberspace, words speak louder than actions.

That’s why the videos featured on The Udder Truth treat social media comments as the dairy industry’s main adversary. The website’s three videos attempt to debunk the so-called myths surrounding 1) Big Farms, 2) Antibiotics, and 3) Cow Care. Each video’s speaker is a dairy farmer carefully selected to portray an industry built on hard work, family values, and the pure bliss of cattle. And the “myths” that each farmer deflects are picked from the under-researched dreck of social media commentary, excluding and erasing the legitimate anti-industry arguments of animal rights, workers’ rights, and environmental activists (on- or off-line).

Each video pinpoints easily-silenced complaints about the dairy industry, designed to leave viewers thinking that all criticism of the dairy industry is illegitimate.

Kerry Martin University of Vermont
Big farms are only a symptom of “corporate dairy,” made necessary by the monopolization of processing and packaging.

The “Big Farms” video cites three “myths”: “All big farms are bad and owned by coorporations,” big-farm cows are “mistreated,” and operating procedures are “horrendous.” These bold, sweeping claims are quickly dismissed by the video’s interviewee, a woman whose profitable, family-owned farm is home to over 2,000 decently-treated cows. But these “myths” barely touch on many activists’ real complaints about corporate dairy: that overpaid industry executives collude to control vast portions of the milk processing, packaging, and distribution market, allowing them to push down the price of milk and force family farms to either scale up or shut down. In this corporate-funded video debunking the “lies” about big farms, the role of corporations is conspicuously absent.

Kerry Martin University of Vermont
Excessive use of livestock antibiotics–made necessary by factory farming–already amounts to a public health crisis. (Source: GMO Inside)

The next video, about “Antibiotics” on dairy farms, addresses one marginal complaint while leaving an enormous, angry elephant in the room. The farmer in this video takes on the myth that there are antibiotics actually inside the milk and dairy that we consume. She outlines the stringent health and purity requirements of dairy processors and stresses that farmers have enormous incentives to keep antibiotics out of milk. But she fails to address (or was directed not to address) a far larger concern: the overuse of antibiotics that turns factory farms into bacteria bootcamps. The rising use of antibiotics–deemed necessary on large farms, be they meat or dairy, to counterbalance the health risks of keeping so many animals in cramped conditions–has been increasingly cited as a public health risk, less so for the human consumption of these antibiotics than for the risk of breeding infectious bacteria extremely resistant to antibiotics. The video completely sidesteps this issue, and it isolates the use of antibiotics from its aforementioned cause: big farms. Not only do these videos neglect to connect growing farm sizes to the growing (and reckless) use of antibiotics, they fail to identify dairy industry corporatization as the force that pressures farmers to upscale their operations and require more antibiotics.

In similar fashion, the third video about “Cow Care” consults an alleged animal abuse “expert”–you guessed it, a dairy farmer–who, in a few dismissive phrases, delegitimizes animal rights activists’ grievances about cattle treatment. His message is simple: you’re not a dairy farmer, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s a simple enough rebuff for those slacktivists who truly do have misperceptions about dairy farm practices, but to categorize all industry critics as such is to shake off a real issue as a cow would a fly.

Kerry Martin University of Vermont
Dairy farm labor is far more diverse–and far worse treated–than “The Udder Truth” depicts.

The most flagrant erasure is in the video that does not exist: “Workers’ Rights.” The dairy industry’s rampant worker abuse, in particular of migrant workers, is the target of many workers’ rights activists, who have brought to light incriminating evidence of wage theft, criminally long work shifts, deplorable working conditions, horrific threats to worker health and safety, and verbal and physical abuse on dairy farms nationwide. The Vermont-based grassroots organization I worked with called Migrant Justice and its innovative “Milk With Dignity” campaign is only a microcosm of the dairy industry’s exploitation of workers nationwide.

The Udder Truth does not even mention the “myths” of workers’ rights abuses because in this, the dairy industry is utterly complicit. Industry corporatization and low prices force many farmers to underpay and overwork their staff, all while dairy executives pocket multimillion dollar bonuses. While The Udder Truth could have found a decent farm with well-paid, well-treated workers–there are certainly examples of this–it is safer for the dairy industry to not bring any attention to workers’ rights whatsoever.

In The Udder Truth, Dairy Management Inc. has crafted a campaign to silence slacktivists and crown itself the preserver of animal rights and the American family business ethic. So where better to publicize it than The Onion?

Kerry Martin University of Vermont Migrant Justice
Sure, bloggers are worth satirizing. But sponsored satire has an agenda: to invalidate the legitimate concerns raised by industry whistleblowers, on and offline. By normalizing this invalidation, The Onion erases abuses by the dairy industry.

YouTube ads are okay, but in web advertising and promotion, nothing works like native advertising. The effective–and terrifying–part of native advertising is that it can be hard to identify as an ad. Unlike traditional ads that occupy their reserved space and style, native ads pose as whatever else the publication produces, surreptitiously labelled “sponsored content.” The Udder Truth would be nothing new if its videos were designed as commercials. but they are disguised as a documentaries.

Of course, who better than Dairy Management Inc. to champion ethically-questionable methods of self-promotion? After all, this is the same organization that teamed up with the government to launch the “Got Milk?” campaign, convincing children and parents that their health depended on buying and drinking lots and lots of milk, completely defying the medical community’s consensus then and now. Got Milk was launched in 1993 California and was used across the country until 2014, when it was revamped as the protein-rich “Milk Life” campaign. On TV, Milk Life lives on, targeting the prevailing market of health-conscious moms (without major success); online, The Udder Truth targets the emerging market of rights- and climate-conscious Millennials. I hope few are convinced.

Kerry Martin University of Vermont Migrant Justice
Bearded hipster slacktivists deserve mockery (evidence: this writer). But they’re not the real target of this campaign; rights activists are.

Then again, by partnering with The Onion, The Udder Truth is setting a high standard for “going native.” The Onion made a masterful transition into the age of internet and social media, hilariously scathing tumultuous media trends while simultaneously navigating them, occupying an illusory media-moral high-ground. In a sense, The Onion is frank about this: its clickbait-spoofing website Clickhole unashamedly boasts the same depraved revenue model it was created to ridicule. But when The Onion hosts native advertising and sponsored content promoting the dairy industry, it is buoyed by the same moral judgment implicit in the practice of satire.

It’s a strange age of media when we can’t even trust fake news to shelter us from hidden agendas. And it’s a strange industry that, rather than addressing its own issues, stages an investigation of itself, finds itself flawless, and publicizes the results, without so much as a nod in the direction of its legitimate critics.

Then again, what’s so new about that?

Kerry Martin University of Vermont Migrant Justice
I guess advertising has always just been well-disguised lies, siphoned though would-be reliable sources.
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