The "Happy Cows come from California" commercials, produced by the California Milk Advisory Board, came under repeated criticism from speakers this past weekend at the Cal Poly dairy symposium in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

As one speaker pointed out, advertisements like the Happy Cows give consumers raised expectations and put the industry in a vulnerable position. “You should be explaining your story. When consumers find out cows are on concrete instead of grass, consumers feel betrayed,” notes Bernard Rollin, faculty member at Colorado State University and an expert on the animal-rights movement. “Why not tell the truth?”

Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer for the Center for Food Integrity, agreed with Rollin. “We undermine our credibility with these types of advertisements. We don’t have to apologize or hide from who we are today. Instead we should celebrate it.” Arnot compared the views we are giving consumers to a 1957 Chevy compared to a 2010 Chevy. “If we continue to use old iconic images of the dairy industry, and then fly by in a 2010 Chevy, we’re giving consumer’s perceptual whiplash.”

In some ways, bigger operations take better care of animals, notes Rollin.

Arnot emphasized the need to engage in value-based communication. Shared values are four to five times more important in building trust than demonstrating competence.

See “Up-close and personal with animal welfare” for more from the Cal Poly dairy symposium.

The first time I ever heard the “Happy Cows Come from California” commercials come under criticism was a year and a half ago at the American Dairy Science Association’s 2008 annual meeting in Indianapolis. A paper presented on behalf of Wes Jamison, an animal-welfare specialist at the University of Florida, suggested that consumers can get wrong expectations seeing commercials like that; in other words, they may think that all cows are outdoors on lush green pasture. Perception and reality must be aligned or else dissonance exists, Jamison said. Dissonance or confusion in the consumer’s mind can create a gap that can be exploited by those in the animal-rights movement. It’s best to simply present consumers with reality. That made sense to me at the time, and I am glad to see that others have picked up on it. —Tom Quaife, editor