Simon Amstell’s mockumentary 'Carnage' has won much praise for its use of dark and self-deprecating humour to bring veganism to a wider audience, but it also offers something of a masterclass in how challenging ideas spread.
Baby kale is being trash-talked in KFC commercials, Pret a Manger has opened two veggie only shops and 29% of us are eating less meat than we did a year ago. If one thing is clear, it's that this vegan train isn't slowing down.
Despite these gastronomic strides however, a meat-free diet is still a long way off toppling meat consumption as the status quo, with studies suggesting vegans count for under 1% of the UK population today.
I watched Simon Amstell’s film ‘Carnage’ last night and thought maybe that could soon change. Set in a utopian future where the consumption of meat is illegal, the film documents a fictional vegan timeline, from being an oddball idea from the very fringes of British society to becoming the status-quo diet, adopted by all.
Starting in 1944, with origins in the founding of The Vegan Society, to 2035 and the passing of a bill banning the killing of animals, the film leads up to 2067 and the present day, in which society looks at the previous generation's killing and widespread consumption of meat as one of mankind’s most senseless and shameful atrocities.
The film makes a powerful, fact-based argument for a plant-based diet but via dark comedy and self-deprecation from writer and narrator Amstell, a vegan himself. “All along there had been a clear alternative […] but the vegans were still ridiculous and rarely allowed on television”, Amstell says of 2004.
Amstell's injection of humour has already won much praise for bringing veganism to a wide audience. But the film also offers us something of a masterclass in how a challenging idea can become mainstream, through some of the key events in the film's fictional timeline of the UK's transition to Veg-Nation.
STEP 1: Create a symbol of re-evaluation
(or have a celebrity do it for you)
In 2015, in the film as well as in real life, grime artist JME becomes an unlikely poster child for the vegan movement. JME proclaimed himself a vegan in his song 'Pulse 8', V-gang became a ever-trending hashtag on social and suddenly young people had a cool vegan to listen to and emulate.
A plant based diet was no longer just for the middle classes like Gillian McKeith and other hoity-toities, JME represented the idea that this could be for, and of benefit to everyone - even those in Hackney grime crews.
JME’s unexpected support helped challenge the perception and ingrained thoughts we had about what it means to be vegan and is celebrated in the film as the start of a bigger shift in the public's perception. Since then footballer Jermaine Defoe has also 'come out' as vegan.
INSIGHT: Find/create/co-opt a symbol of re-evaluation for your idea or movement. A surprising or unexpected object or individual who will challenge people’s ingrained perceptions of the idea to make it more accessible.
STEP 2: Make the invisible visible
(put the monster under the bed)
“What’s some iceberg melting in the North Pole got to do with me eating chicken in Croydon?” a young man says to camera, summing up much of society's depressing collective lack of action on climate change in 17 words.
Though in 2020, (now the fictional part of the time-line right?) likable working class mother Lindsay Graber appears on national television in her flooded house, distraught and angry as her furniture and children bob up and down around her.
For the first time, Lindsay makes a direct correlation between the destruction of her home and climate change caused due to the consumption of meat. The dramatic spectacle of a flooded house captured the nation's attention and was highlighted as key in changing people's perceptions of meat and the damage it causes.
INSIGHT: When dangers are perceived as distant people won't see it as a threat and are unlikely to change behaviour. Instead, put the threat of 'maintaining status-quo', or the solution you offer in a context the audience will recognise and understand. Make it dramatic, visible and real.
STEP 3: Break the conventions of representation
(It's not me, it's you...)
It’s easy for those in power to use language and labels to quiet dissent from those in a minority. See how quickly 'Remoaners' became a term used to mock pro-Europeans and stifle debate. Like it or not, 'vegan' is a word that carries a certain baggage too, and these labels infer an occupancy outside of what is accepted as 'normal'.
In 2027, in an interview on BBC Newsnight, activist Troye King Jones rejects being categorised as 'vegan' and dismisses the label as being meaningless. "We are all animals" he says, "We are not vegans, they are carnists".
The change of language helped liberate the movement from the baggage of the term 'vegan', and instead now presented themselves as being the status quo. It was now those who still ate meat, the 'Carnists', who should be seen as the outsiders and the ones who need to adapt and gain acceptance from the world.
INSIGHT: The choice of language has a huge effect on how an idea is perceived and how people will react to it. If some of the words used to describe part of your offer have negative connotations, think about how you can flip these to your advantage, perhaps de-positioning the brand leaders or established ideas.
Of course it’s worth remembering this (JME being vegan aside) was a fictional film documenting a fictional chain of events. But the journey which documented the vegan movement from fringe idea to status-quo was entirely plausible, and it's because it follows a well trodden, replicable path of how challenging ideas spread.
Simon Amstell challenger marketing expert. Who knew?
Editor of The Challenger Project, marketing at eatbigfish. Champion of the underdog. West Ham fan. All adds up really.