The Social Psychology of Veganism – Opinion Leaders

Social psychological research on the absorption of media indicates that media frequently operates in a two-step flow. Media first hits opinion leaders and then disseminates to friends, family, colleagues, and others. Messages become popular as they are filtered through popular people.

Consider the Girls Intelligence Agency, for example, which targets popular preteen girls, sending them boxes of products to test on their friends at parties and sleepovers. Oprah is another good example. Having a product featured on Oprah is a near guarantee that sales will skyrocket, a phenomenon known as the “Oprah Effect.” Popular preteens and Oprah are effective persuaders because they are trendsetters. Audiences will seek to emulate their attitudes and behaviors.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has long exploited the effect of opinion leaders in soliciting celebrities to endorse animal welfare messages. Many cannot help but get excited when influential celebrities like talk show hosts Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah go vegan (if only temporarily) and promote veganism to their audiences.

Of course, many of these celebrity endorsements are seriously problematic. During her brief stint with veganism, Ellen remained the face of CoverGirl, a company that sells products made from the flesh of other animals and also tests on other animals. Most of the celebrities featured in PETA advertisements are not vegan either. Yet, while opinion leaders often fall short of a clear vegan message, their influence cannot be underestimated. As more and more trendsetters go vegan, they both encourage and normalize veganism. One study in the use of celebrity endorsement in conservation found that celebrities increased audience engagement with the campaigns, but the celebrity acted as a sort of distraction, reducing retention of campaign information.

Activists would do well to invest in media, specifically aiming to influence the influentials. Beyond the media sphere, real world networks count, too. Sociological research supports that individuals are more likely to go vegan if they have others in their social networks who are vegan. These networks normalize veganism and ease the transition for newcomers.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Encourage well-known people to promote the message
  • Facilitate supportive networks to normalize veganism and prevent recidivism


Cherry, E. 2003. “‘It’s Not Just a Diet’: Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans.” MA Thesis, University of Georgia.

Duthie, E. 2017. “The Effectiveness of Celebrities in Conservation Marketing.” PLOS One.

Katz, E. 1957. “The Two-Step Flow of Communication: An Up-to-Date Report on a Hypothesis.” Public Opinion Quarterly 21: 61-78.

Keller, E. and B. Berry. 2003. The Influential: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy. New York: Free Press.


This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.