When cows talk: the Happy California Cow campaign as visual apologia

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Date: Spring 2015
From: Argumentation and Advocacy(Vol. 51, Issue 4)
Publisher: Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 10,436 words
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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This paper explores the visual apologia of the California dairy industry's Happy Cow campaign through generic rhetorical analysis. The study identifies several benefits, detriments, and challenges of visual apologia by focusing on the Happy Cow ads' engagement, portrayals of reality, and argumentative clarity. The argument is made that visual apologia, including that of the Happy Cow campaign, is both rhetorically promising and limiting. As such it is a potentially potent and problematic form of apologia. The conclusion indicates several approaches that may be taken to downplay the negative implications of visual apologia while harnessing its productive qualities.

Key Words: apologia, visual rhetoric, organizational rhetoric, dairy industry

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If success is measured by recognition, then the Happy California Cow campaign ranks alongside Coca Cola's polar bears and Honey Nut Cheerio's Buzz the Bee. Unlike these latter campaigns, however, the California Milk Advisory Board's (CMAB) Happy Cow ads have garnered more than brand recognition; they have received labels ranging from endearing to deceitful. Despite meeting resistance and being sued (unsuccessfully) by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 2005, the Board has continued to develop Happy California Cow advertisements. The advertisements, originally featuring Holstein cows, Janice and Diane, took both print and commercial form. Print versions circulated among billboards, magazines, and organization-produced propaganda including bumper stickers and stuffed animals. Commercial versions of the ads appeared on major networks in California and currently run nationwide. The blue skies, green grasses, and spotted cows have become household images, yet they have not been universally well received.

In this paper I explore the visual rhetoric of the Happy Cow campaign, which debuted in 2007, as advertising and apologia used to defend the California dairy industry against mounting criticism. I argue that visual apologia, including that of the Happy Cow campaign, is both promising and rhetorically limiting. It is a potentially potent and problematic form of apologia. In particular, while the Happy Cow campaign excels at engaging audiences, it fails as effective apologia because of its inability to direct audience interpretations to the industry's apologetic arguments. As the conclusion indicates, however, several approaches may be taken to downplay the negative implications of visual apologia while harnessing its productive qualities.

This study of visual apologia unites visual and organizational scholarship with more traditional studies of public address. Taking this interdisciplinary approach strengthens the foundation of the paper, pulling elements from multiple perspectives that best suit the case study (Campbell & Burkholder, 1996). This approach additionally allows the present generic analysis to contribute to a number of important conversations. As visual apologia is a growing phenomenon, more rhetorical scholarship is needed to keep up with modern developments and shifting communication strategies. In addition, this study pragmatically serves the corporate world, as organizational apologia is often a high stakes concern. The California dairy industry and the success of the Happy Cow campaign, for example, have a tremendous economic impact on the state and its thousands of dairy farmers. (1) In response to these theoretical and practical exigencies, the present study of visual apologia, examines the argumentative facets of visual discourse to draw conclusions about this category of rhetoric (Blair, 2008; Burgchardt, 2005).

This paper is organized as follows. A review of the rhetorical literature first provides the foundation upon which the analysis is conducted. Subsequently provided is a review of the social and political context that called forth the Happy Cow campaign. The study of the campaign begins with detailed descriptions of two representative Happy Cow commercials, which are then rhetorically analyzed in light of three visual and apologetic qualities. The conclusion of the paper reviews the challenges and advantages of visual apologia and offers suggestions for productive application and future research.


The Happy California Cow campaign was born into a dominant visual culture. Arguments, apologia, announcements, and other discourse are increasingly emitted through visual, not just linguistic, discourse. W.J.T. Mitchell (1994; 1995) and Cara Finnegan (2005) remind us that, as vision frames our human experience, visuals as communicative expressions are nearly as ubiquitous as language itself. Once a mode open only to those savvy with a brush or burin, visual rhetoric in infinite forms is now widely accessible to individuals and organizations thanks to the proliferation of technology. Visual messages now meet many needs and, through their use of imagery, engage and endure in the minds of viewers (Hawhee, 2011). Visual discourse accelerates the speed of communication and more easily expands viewers' global consciousness (DeLuca & Peeples, 2002).

Visual rhetoric, in general, is a growing area of scholarship. In recent decades, scholars have explored the types, functions, counterparts, and challenges of visual arguments (Barbatsis 1996; Birdsell & Groarke, 1996; Medhurst & DeSousa, 1981). Anthony Blair (2008) has clarified that, compared to verbal arguments, visual arguments are characterized by evocative power, perceived realism, rhetorical (not dialectic) power, greater force and immediacy, and an inability to enunciate supporting premises. These understandings are built upon the idea that images engage their audience by functioning like enthymemes, or syllogistic structures in which one or more supporting premises are unstated (Aristotle, trans. 2007; Blair, 2008; Jenkins, 2008). Valerie Smith (2007) recently agreed that classic rhetorical concepts, including the enthymeme, help loosely explain the argumentative nature of visuals. Visuals' argumentative potential is important to understand as organizations increasingly attempt to argue through visuals that omit explicit premises or propositions.

The roles of omission and ambiguity in communication have been widely studied. As Lester Olson (1983) explains, productive ambiguity occurs when visual texts omit specific identifications, allowing viewers to insert their own ideas or assume multiple meanings. Olson and others, including Augustine (trans. 2008), Mikhail Bakhtin (1984), and Eric Eisenburg (1984), have demonstrated that ambiguity is a generous gift that allows an image's message and purpose to change with audiences. By providing the supporting premises of a visual argument, viewers become engaged with, and even invested in a particular idea; they gain a sense of agency by interpreting visual enthymemes, which are often bound to everyday contexts and experiences (Finnegan, 2005). Yet this advantage comes at a cost. Anthony Blair posits that when founding premises and conditions are vague or ambiguous, "we cannot tell what we are being asked to concede, and we cannot decide whether to agree or whether the alleged conclusion follows" (2008, p. 46). Thus the pitfall of the enthymeme: more engaging than a syllogism but also more open to debate.

The argumentative potential of visual arguments is additionally complicated by their reliance on projected realism (Blair, 2008). When images project realism and objectivity as part of their argumentation, they can become highly political (Finnegan, 2001), charged with appeals that can possibly move Congress, as DeLuca and Demo (2000) point out, with the establishment of the first national wilderness park. While projected realism offers potency and engagement, it also poses challenges for the rhetorical potential of visual arguments. In his studies of natural landscapes and prenatal and microscopic imagery, for example, Nathan Stormer (2004) questions whether it is ever possible to fully represent reality in an image. Representing the sublime, for instance, entails acknowledging that competing versions of reality are commonplace (Stormer, 2004), which coincides with Blair's (2008) theory that visuals are not dialectical but rhetorical. Visual arguments lend themselves to multifaceted interpretations rather than single reconstructions of their truth value. Their ambiguity can be problematic, as we will see, especially when visual rhetoric is meant to fulfill highly specific functions (e.g., as apologia).

Realism is additionally challenged when a visual's argumentative quality is transparent. As Jenkins (2008) points out, advertisers who communicate through images are tasked with disarming the public's iconophobic impulses. Similarly suspect are performance fragments, which Keith Erickson defines as "political illusions" that manipulate viewers' emotions and notions of reality (2000, p. 141). Images of staged events, like Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the 1965 Education Bill at his childhood school and Barack Obama's 2014 visit to a drought-stricken California farm, serve rhetorical and political purposes, but at a cost. Apparent manipulation and staging potentially open such performances to the critique of constructing false images. These critiques can carry over to organizations as they frame and defend their images and actions.

The use of apologia by corporations is a well-documented rhetorical strategy. Exigencies of various dimensions regularly demand that corporations act or speak to defend their ethos (Benoit, 1995; Hatch, 2006; Hearit, 1995). Traditionally, researchers have explored seven apologetic approaches including denial, bolstering, minimization, differentiation, transcendence, attack accuser, and comprehension (Abelson, 1959; Benoit, 1995; Ware & Linkugel, 1973). Studies of apologia, however, have been largely text-based, leaving untouched the study of visual apologia. Despite this gap, some research has at least extended apologetic scholarship diachronically (e.g., Janssen, 2012) and topically (e.g., Oles, 2010).

Paving the way for visual apologia research, corporate social responsibility theory (CSR) outlines organizations' rhetorical use of socially laudable deeds (philanthropic work, charitable donations, environmental contributions, etc.) to bolster their public image, as the oil industry has done (Spangler & Pompper, 2011). For example, since their 2010 oil spill, British Petroleum has produced ads showcasing their Gulf Coast restoration and conservation efforts. Such efforts exhibit how organizations argue through shared cultural values, such as social responsibility, to enhance their image, portray organizational values, and deflect critiques (Bostdorff & Vibbert, 1994). Despite the usefulness of CSR messages, Oyvind Ihlen (2009) and Emily Plec and Mary Pettenger (2012) argue that CSR messages, including Green Rhetoric, are still suspect to the public. As Carol Stabile (2000) explains, because organizations profit from the public display of their good deeds, their philanthropic actions are often viewed as tainted or unrealistic. Thus, CSR messages may not be sufficient as apologia; however, CSR research at least creates a bridge from which to evaluate contemporary (e.g., visual) apologia like that of the CMAB.

When they began running the Happy Cow campaign in the early 2000s, opening debate was the exact opposite intention of the California Milk Advisory Board. The California dairy industry-which presently produces over one-fifth of the nation's milk, exports 40 percent of US dairy products, accrues $7 billion in annual retail sales, and sustains over 1,500 dairy families and 1.82 million milk cows-was in a crisis (CMAB, n.d., b). Nestled in the state's rural Central Valley and overshadowed by the dominant cultures of the Bay Area and Southern California, the state's dairy industry was being attacked from multiple angles and desperately needed to produce apologia.

Health, cruelty, environmental, and economic concerns regarding the industry poured in from spectators across the state and nation. Examples of critiques are easily found in the archives of nearly all California newspapers and many national publications. For example, a 2000 San Francisco Chronicle article questioned the meat, dairy, and egg industries for systematically hiding information from consumers (Bahar, 2000). (3) In 2005, an LA Times headline declared, "Cows Pass Cars as Polluters" (Bustillo, 2005). More nationally, other news sources including the Wall Street Journal (Berry & Gee, 2012) and the Huffington Post (Milk, 2012) announced that milk consumption was decreasing due to consumer doubt about milk's nutritional value.

From a cultivation theory perspective (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1986; Gerbner 1998), the more negative coverage the dairy industry received, the more concerned the public became, believing that the negative anecdotes reported were true and occurred more than their actual frequency. Thus negative news coverage, combined with activists' critiques, maligned the dairy industry, jeopardizing its financial wellbeing and apparent integrity. Each concern raised against the dairy industry raised the concern of the dairy industry. (2)

Health-related apprehension surrounding the consumption of animal byproducts, specifically dairy, has existed for decades among certain groups. Although animals' ailments sparked veganism, ironically the treatment of animals' ailments has further proliferated the movement (Suddath, 2008). A visit to grocery stores reveals that dairy-alternative products nearly all boast of being antibiotic and hormone free-a narrative that insinuates the use of science on animals is negative (perspectives range) and that prior to the existence of health labels, consumers unknowingly consumed tainted milk (e.g., Whole Foods, n.d.). Restaurants, too, have begun health-conscious marketing campaigns that lead "people who have little connection to their food and lack knowledge about how it is produced to [sic] believe these gross misrepresentations" (Cornett, 2014). Narratives like Chipotle's "Farmed and Dangerous" campaign, are easily refuted by dairy-literate individuals, but nonetheless continue to abound in the public sphere, hurting the California dairy industry and warranting response. (4)

Animal cruelty concerns have also been periodically vocalized. Countless blogs, forums, and social media pages speak out on behalf of dairy cows. Public accusations of cruelty against "agribusiness enterprises" and "factory farms" accuse large-scale dairies of being nothing like small family-operated farms that assumedly treat their cows better (e.g., Robbins, 2010). Critics argue that "because agribusiness values profit over ethical principles, cruelty to [dairy] animals continues to run rampant on factory farms" (Mercy for Animals, 2009). Along similar lines, PETA sued the California Milk Advisory Board for "false and deceptive" advertising surrounding cow happiness (PETA v CMAB, 2005). Likewise, frequent media coverage of animal abuse cases in national newspapers and publications including the LA Times (e.g., Chon, 2000; Hsu, 2012), NY Times (e.g., "Moral," 2009; Associated Press, 2014) and Rolling Stone (Solotaroff, 2013) have raised and continue to raise public concern regarding animal welfare on large farms. This constant negative coverage and rising public suspicion regarding animal welfare further alarmed the California dairy industry. (5)

Although equally threatening and economically troubling, environmental concerns did at least provide some comic relief for California dairy farmers who, I recall, joked that the "hippies" were now suing because "cow farts are destroying the ozone." Despite the subsequent laughs, rising environmental concerns regarding methane emission from manure, feed, fuel, and other aspects posed serious economic threats to the well-being of the dairy industry. (6) Already skeptical consumers opposed the idea of supporting an industry detrimental to the environment. Meanwhile, heightened environmental concerns imposed even stricter regulation on the already most-regulated dairy industry within the fifty states (Richardson, 2008). In the context of other economically detrimental threats, the CMAB recently reported that ten percent of California dairies have been economically forced to fold (CMAB, 2014). In addition, stricter regulation and higher costs led and continue to lead many dairies to consider moving out of state (Lopez, 2013). Increased regulation has also involved changes that further financially burden and jeopardize the existence of small dairy farms--those farms so valued by the very individuals concerned about dairy animals' welfare (e.g., Manure, 2012; Vogel, 2012). As such, dairy farmers felt and continue to feel pressure to defend their trade, many facing the question of survival.

The environment surrounding California cows in the early 2000s was clearly not a happy one. Mounting health, cruelty, environmental, and economic concerns warranted the industry to speak out to defend itself and sustain itself. The Happy Cow campaign was the California Milk Advisory Board's apologetic response to its array of exigencies. Rather than issuing formal public statements, the California dairy industry turned to visual apologia and put its fate in the hooves of two bodacious bovines.


In contrast to yet more allegations, the Happy Cow commercials are not funded by taxpayer dollars but by dairy families that participate in a check-off program administered by the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CMAB, 2014; CDFA, 2014). The campaign, which debuted in 2007 and was developed by Deutsch LA, was widely successful, if success is measured by visibility. Within a year, Happy Cows were recognized by 79 percent of American women (CMAB, 2007). More exciting for California dairy farmers was the reported rise in Real California Cheese sales by 26 percent.

Despite achieving visibility and apparent economic success, the ads' apologetic success still remains in question. It is difficult to measure the apologetic success of the Happy Cows campaign and its ability to sway public discourse (Humphreys & Thompson, 2014) because critiques targeted the entire dairy industry. Studying the Happy Cow campaign as rhetoric, however, is a productive means of assessing the ads' implications. One concern is whether countering critiques through narrow portrayals of dairy life sufficiently defends the industry. Another concern surrounds whether visual rhetoric, given its ambiguities, may serve as effective apologia. The subsequent rhetorical analysis addresses these concerns.

Like most advertising campaigns, the Happy Cow campaign started with a single thirty-second ad. The ad featured Janice and Diane, two mature Holstein dairy cows gifted with the ability to speak English and the ability to talk to other creatures, including a duck that also speaks English. This ad, "Meditation" (Deutsch L.A., 2007), begins with a wide view of what appears to be the foothills of California. Rolling fields of tall, golden grasses sway in the breeze (as they do in the summer and fall), and a lone oak tree graces the left of the screen. Janice and Diane, walking side-by-side, enter the tree's shade and approach a Pekin duck perched on a boulder.

As the cows approach, a long "om," spoken in a male voice, is heard. The far cow asks and is informed that the duck is meditating. She tells him he is "doing it backwards. It's not om its moo" (CMAB, 2007). The three animals then proceed to practice meditating together. The duck finally succeeds in chanting "moo" rather than "om," but his voice is oddly high, not at all cow-like. Giving up, the far cow says "Never mind." The screen pans, and the same cow asks "Do ducks have ears?" The second cow, speaking for the first time, responds, "Yeah but they don't listen." The cows walk off in the direction they came from, and the camera pulls back, revealing a panorama of golden foothills, scattered green oak trees, and grazing Holsteins. The commercial ends with the narrator saying "Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California. Real California cheese."

Nearly a decade after their debut, several more commercials have been made featuring Janice, Diane and a variety of supporting animals. A more recent commercial, released by the California Milk Advisory Board in 2011, portrays Janice and Diane meeting "the new girl" on the farm. Titled "Who's She" (CMAB, 2015b), the ad begins by portraying a wide scene of nearly a dozen Holsteins grazing on bright green grass, freckled with yellow flowers. Such imagery, accompanied by the sound of birds chirping, suggests it is springtime in either the foothills or coastal mountains. Rolling hills, a few scattered trees, and a faint fence line the background. In the flat foreground, Holstein cows congregate around a large tree, possibly oak, and are approached by a lone Holstein.

The frame changes to only include the cows' heads and necks. The cows greet the new girl and ask how she likes it "here." In a distinct Wisconsin accent the new girl replies, "Oh I love it here! No snow on the grass." As the other cows are clearly confused, she continues, '"cause I hate big snow drifts don't ya know." The others' silence prompts her to say, "Ok then, see ya!" As the new girl turns and leaves, the four others comment, "What's snow?" and "She's been tipped one time too many." The ad then jumps to the closing scene, golden hills spotted with a handful of grazing cows and green oaks, which has become the standard closing scene since the first Happy Cow ad. The golden hill goes out of focus and a linen table with a spread of dairy products enters the screen and focus. A narrator states the campaign's second slogan: "Great milk comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California. Make sure it's made with real California milk."

Besides the seasonal and thematic differences between the commercials, three rhetorical elements remain the same between "Meditation" and "Who's She," which are representative of the dozens of other Happy Cow commercials. First, the ads emphasize California as the dominant scene to differentiate the California dairy industry and to engage a wide audience. Second, ads portray a narrow version of reality to counter critiques, though this ultimately fails. The failure of the ads' counterarguments is explained by a third rhetorical characteristic: their failure to clearly communicate propositions, premises, and arguments. The italicized elements, are all related to the generic qualities of visual rhetoric or apologetic discourse, and they play important roles in how we understand the Happy Cow campaign as visual apologia. Identifying these rhetorical traits can aid in analyzing the rhetorical potential of the Happy Cow campaign, while outlining some functions and failures of visual apologia.

Differentiating and Audience Engagement

To begin, both "Meditation" and "Who's She" consistently emphasize California as the scene, which simultaneously engages audiences and differentiates the California dairy industry. Although occasionally problematic, the California emphasis of these commercials helps the CMAB defend its image and argue its distinctness from other states' dairy industries. The use of distinct California elements within the ads help viewers differentiate these dairies from those found in New York or Wisconsin, both of which also have large dairy industries.

The ads all appear to be set in either the California foothills or Coastal Mountains. As filming location for many early western films, both ranges have become iconic for their sloping, oak-studded, golden grasses. This imagery resonates with audiences who are familiar with the landscapes. By routinely emphasizing these visuals, the Happy Cow ads reinforce the setting of California and positive associations of the state. The natural images also remind audiences of stereotypes pertaining to California's longstanding environmental conservatism (e.g., John Muir and the Sierra Club). Audiences may then be oriented toward the green apologetic messages that are stereotypical of California, though the audience may be suspicious (Ihlen, 2009; Plec & Pettenger, 2012; Spangler & Pompper, 2011).

Individual ads additionally exhibit explicit differentiation attempts that also help take the apologetic discourse to a more national level. For example, the snow confusion in "Who's She" and the flashback in "Blizzard" (CMAB, 2015b) engage a national audience by incorporating themes and dialects that extend beyond California. While differentiating the California industry from the Wisconsin industry, the ads also advance a jab at Wisconsin dairy farmers and serves as a mere extension of age-old banter between the states' archrival industries. (Although California leads in milk production, Wisconsin has led mass cheese production since 1910; see Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, 2014.) This interstate discourse illustrates the ads' external direction and indicates that their (apologetic) message is for a national audience. Upon reaching this larger audience, the CMAB can then respond to broad exigencies (Janssen, 2012), namely national concerns about the dairy industry.

Thematically, both "Blizzard" and "Who's She" underscore California cows' contentment by suggesting that they are happy, warm, and better off than Wisconsin's dairy animals. This is a clear example of apologia by differentiation (Benoit, 1995; Ware & Linkugel, 1973). The ads divide the dairy industry regionally in an attempt to shed blanket criticism. Ironically, though, the ads neglect to admit that some dairy farming counties in California, such as Tulare, are subject to some snow. Nonetheless, the aforementioned examples of differentiation do well to engage national audiences.

Specific elements within each commercial also attract particular audiences. Cynical Californians, for example, are addressed by the theme in "Meditation" (Deutsch L.A, 2007), which plays upon the progressive and eccentric cultures surrounding San Francisco and Los Angeles- urban audiences likely unfamiliar with or skeptical of the California dairy industry. Not only does the meditation theme differentiate the cows as Californians, it appeals to a progressive viewership so the CMAB can then respond to social concerns about the dairy industry. In addition, this theme appeals to a greater national audience that might typically associate California not with the dairy industry but with its metropolitan stereotypes. The portrayal of meditating cows subtly educates national audiences about the existence of the California dairy industry, while joining them to poke fun at other prevalent Californian identities.

Likewise, each ad's use of humor enhances its audience appeal. For example the ad "Weather" (CMAB, 2015b) builds upon the state's stereotypically sunny weather and parodies cows' tendency to run when startled by something as unthreatening as a cloud. The ad "Alarm Clock" (CMAB, 2015b) parodies cows' tendencies to kick, in this case punt, when irritated. Such parodies appeal to a dairy-literate audience and, as general humor, to a larger audience (Folse, Burton, & Netemeyer, 2013). Humor especially appeals to audiences who only process messages peripherally (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Petty & Wegener, 1999), and through distraction it helps avoid audience deconstruction of underlying apologetic arguments (Buller & Hall, 1998; Petty, Wells, & Brock, 1976). Thus, appealing to a wider audience, humor can also mask any latent misrepresentation (Shabbir & Thwaites, 2007), such as the ads' portrayal of dairy scenes in the hills when, in reality, most California dairies are in the valley. Likewise, humor helps mask the ads' subtle attempts to differentiate the California dairy industry from other states and other animal industries.

While reaching various audiences, the ads subtly use differentiation to defend the industry against surrounding criticisms. The visuals help ensure that audiences are engaged and aware of the California setting. At the same time, the portrayals of iconic California landscapes with serenely grazing bovines help differentiate the California dairy industry from the national industry. The overall apologetic effectiveness of this visual apologia, however, is contingent upon other rhetorical components of the ads.

Countering and Narrow Realism

Although the ads are highly effective at engaging audiences, their narrow portrayals of reality fail to effectively counter critiques of the dairy industry. Both "Meditation" and "Who's She" include panoramic views of the beautiful (green or golden) California hills, swaying grasses, beckoning oaks, heavenly skies, and bountiful sunshine, showcasing through projected realism the idyllic aspects of the state and industry. Although likely retouched and at least partially computer-generated, the images are not necessarily untrue. On certain days, parts of California really are as cloudless and picturesque as the images. On a handful of dairies, cows are grass-fed. And in some California locations, trees do offer shade.

These narrow portrayals, on the one hand, attempt to counter industry critiques by showing a reality that contrasts critics' claims. The depicted cows are healthy, content, and well-cared for. Likewise the farms appear lush, and the skies appear unpolluted. These constant images portray the dairy industry as an environmental and animal welfare-concerned organization, countering critiques and defending the organization's ethos (Benoit, 1995). At the same time, the ads attempt to emit an underlying sense of the California dairy industry's social responsibility (e.g., green farms and content animals) (Bostdorff & Vibbert, 1994; Ihlen, 2009). As the ads repeatedly air, the visuals repeatedly counter arguments locally and nationally. And as their audience grows, the ads continue to counter critiques and even serve as inoculation by pre-exposing viewers to positive ideas of the industry and its apologia before critics' messages reach them (McGuire & Papageorgis, 1961; Szabo & Pfau, 2002).

Yet, closer examination of the ads' visual counterarguments reveals that they do not actually show the aspects of the industry that are directly critiqued. Given that large dairies are often targeted as monstrous "agribusinesses," one would think that highlighting the realities and merits of large-scale dairy farming practices would be a more productive form of apologia (Boyd & Waymer, 2011) than highlighting the practices of a very narrow portion of California dairies. The Happy Cow ads present only a narrow version of reality, thus they are unable to thoroughly address or overturn overarching criticisms. Although the ads are eye-catching, without rhetorical or agricultural education, a non-dairy-literate public is not well suited to identify the truths or problems. Because their projected realism is narrow, the Happy Cow ads provide minimal organizational defense; they simply do not directly counter the specific arguments of critics, which in this context are quite broad and challenging (cf. Janssen, 2012).

The Happy Cow ads' rhetorical approach excludes a number of other co-existing realities. For example, the ads never include images of dairy farms in the Central Valley where barns, not trees, provide shade, and where nutritionists and feed trucks, not pastures, provide sustenance. The ads never take place on the days when California skies are grey and its grasses neither green nor gold. The ads never allude to the semi-arid desert conditions, high summer temperatures, and minimal rainfall of the Central Valley, where much of the dairy industry is based. The ads never include the thousands of humans involved in the dairy industry. The ads never show images of dairy farm structures, like corrals, milk parlors, and freestall barns. The ads never include important processes involved in dairy farming like calving, vaccinating, and milking; instead, they almost always show the cows at pasture. Although the visuals within each ad are fairly constant and narrowly true, the contexts provided systematically omit fundamental components of most California dairies.

As Blair (2008) explains, as long as the context is mutually understood, ambiguity or omission is acceptable and even fruitful in a visual argument; but in the case of the California dairy industry, context is the exact issue under fire. Manure, feed lots, veterinary practices, holding pens, and milking protocols are just some of the critiqued dairy farming elements, yet the Happy Cow ads omit these. The ads instead focus on just a few activist- acceptable aspects like grazing. In the greater reality, grazing is just one part of dairy farming and is a practice not employed by many large dairy farms, which commonly feed cows closely monitored grains and hay in feed barns (CMAB, 2015a). While some smaller farms may let their animals out to graze, this practice is more often done with beef cattle. The nutritional breakdown of milk is directly related to dairy animals' diet; thus rather than sending dairy animals out to eat unmonitored amounts of unclassified pasture, which also has been linked to higher methane production (Thoma et al., 2013), many dairies staff nutritionists who design and implement diets that best meet the needs of the herd given the commodities available (cf. CMAB, 2015a; Cow, 2013). While there are certainly merits to both methods of feeding, only the former is included in the Happy Cow ads. Rather than focusing on more of the many realities involved in modern dairy farming, the ads bet their apologetic productivity on a handful of select aspects, like grazing, to counter a broad range of industry-wide critiques. These visuals suggest only a few conclusions (e.g., our cows are well-cared for, our dairies are green) that are largely unsupported by the provided context.

The limited context provided by the Happy Cow ads does little to counter the arguments of critics who point to other contexts. Industry critics continue to assert that "the reality of much modern farming is far different," to declare that "industrial, factory-like" farms, which sustain the majority of California's industry, are "environmental degradation and potential threats to human health" (Churchill, 2013), and to ask "Are California Cows Happy?" (e.g., Pacelle, 2009; Robbins, 2010). The Happy Cow campaign is simply too narrow to overturn these concerns. The ads may sell milk and appeal to passive viewers, but as apologia they are limited. By portraying only a narrow version of California's dairy industry, the ads do not prove that all California cows are happy, nor that they are happy at all stages of their days and lives. Furthermore, they do not prove that all California dairies are as "green" as those in the ads. Likewise, they do not prove that human health concerns are thoroughly addressed by all dairy farmers.

Although people tend to believe what they see over what they hear (Erickson, 2000), when sights are subject to doubt, they have little persuasive power. Subsequently, even if the commercials' narrow portrayals were a conscious and strategic decision in an attempt to replace the public's perception of dairy farming (a potentially easy endeavor given the majority of the public does not live near a dairy), they are rhetorically problematic, in part, because of the public's iconophobic tendencies (Jenkins, 2008). Replacing or modifying public perception is all the more difficult given that the public has already been made aware of a number of "realities" by critical activists, which are not portrayed in the ads.

By drastically narrowing the portrayed reality, the ads risk eliciting viewers' doubt. Although it would be difficult to ever holistically present every facet of the California dairy industry, as Stormer (2004) suggests, there is aesthetic and argumentative merit in attempting to present the otherwise unpresentable. Watkins' large collection of landscape photographs, for example, effectively moved audiences to praise and preserve American wilderness (DeLuca & Demo, 2000). Through thorough representation, a CMAB campaign might likewise be able to gain audience understanding and appreciation. Instead, the Happy Cow ads' narrowness instills a sense of doubt and omission, much like a performance fragment displays an illusory quality (Blair, 2008; Erickson, 2000). Even if the ads are not meant to be interpreted as illusions (because there is nothing to hide, as California dairy farmers would argue), their narrowness constrains their persuasive potential. Meanwhile, the industry's desired reputation as being mindful of the environment, animal welfare, and consumer health remains under attack.

In short, even if the Happy Cows ads are realistic portrayals (narrow or otherwise), they do little to thwart the doubt of critical audiences. For the critical viewer and central processor (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), the ads' narrow realities are met with suspicion; more evidence is needed, especially since the portrayals are presented by stakeholders. Although the ads peripheral appeals might persuade passive consumers (e.g., Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Petty & Wegener, 1999), audience members are equally likely to accept the visually shocking advertisements of PETA, Rolling Stone, Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society and other activists, which similarly portray narrow realities. What happens, then, when a San Francisco Chronicle article (e.g., Churchill, 2013) disputes or conflicts with the California Milk Advisory Board's campaign? The ads' Edenic images do little to trump the negative portrayals of the industry circulated by critics. The realism portrayed in the Happy Cow ads, often a persuasive element of visual rhetoric, does little more than sell cheese; the narrow portrayals are simply unable to counter the multifaceted critiques.

Mis/Uncommunicated Arguments

The apologetic function of the Happy Cow ads is limited given the ads' visual medium. While the ads engage their audience, they do not work to ensure viewers accept or even understand the message. An argument necessitates a proposition, supporting premises, and a conclusion (Aristotle, 2007; Blair, 2008), yet the visual arguments of the Happy Cow ads do not explicitly include all of these parts and implicit allusions are inaccessible or too vague for many audiences. Their previously discussed narrow portrayals, for example, prevent certain propositions from being clearly raised. Is the argument about the environment? Animal welfare? Health concerns?

As visual enthymemes, the ads leave viewers responsible for providing the missing information to arrive at the conclusion. Yet, if viewers do not understand the specific propositions being advanced, they may not supply the premises that the CMAB intends. Shared knowledge is necessary to complete the hypostases, yet the ads do not ensure this condition is met (Blair, 2008;Jenkins, 2008). As a result, the intended apologetic conclusions of the ads are not reached. This shortfall is especially true for non-dairy-literate audiences and those individuals removed from the various controversies.

Although the ads' tagline, "Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California," begins to establish a proposition and guide audience interpretations toward an argument, the direction is limited. These linguistic cues, brief synopses of the campaign's apologetic message, are strung together to help viewers make sense of the entire ad (Barthes, 1977). Yet this tagline is only part of a chain of communicative elements; the audience must rely on the other visual and narrative aspects to decipher the ads' arguments. An animal welfare argument is perhaps the most pronounced argument in the ads, so let us examine that.

Because visuals cannot enunciate their supporting premises and propositions (Blair, 2008), they often rely on linguistic messages to anchor the audience's interpretation (Barthes, 1977). The counterargument that California cows are well-cared for is communicated to viewers first and foremost through the campaign's title: Happy California Cows. The message is also clear in the campaign's aforementioned tagline. Together, these linguistic messages anchor the audience's understanding of the ads' proposition and conclusion (Barthes, 1977).

Visual rhetoric, in turn, assumedly guides viewers to understand California cows as content and cared for. For example, the opening and closing scenes almost always portray the cows walking, standing, or grazing. They are never being corralled, herded, milked, or interrupted (except occasionally by other farm animals). Even the "noteworthy events" of the cows' lives featured in each commercial are trivial and comical (a meditating duck, a line-dropping bull, a foot race interrupted to smell dandelions, etc.). The implication is that California cows' daily lives are exceptionally leisurely, carefree, and happy (e.g., CMAB, 2015b, "Alarm Clock" & "Finish Line"). Even when the cows encounter California "crises," the crises are portrayed satirically and emphasize that even "bad" days are good days; earthquakes are foot massages and the scariest threat is the shadow of a miniscule cloud (e.g., CMAB, 2015b, "Earthquake" & "Weather"). These noteworthy but mundane daily events imply the bovines truly are happy in pastoral California. Audiences may not, however, connect the cows' contentment with the industry's treatment of them.

The argument that California dairy cows are well cared for necessitates a premise that acknowledges the caring agents. Yet, the Happy Cow ads do not provide this premise. The middle processes involved in the apologetic argument and the middle processes involved in dairy farming are missing. This enthymematic apologetic approach works for dairy-literate viewers and peripheral processers, but uninformed, misinformed, and skeptical viewers are unable or unwilling to provide the "correct" missing premises. Without sufficient proof or linguistic messages to anchor and guide viewers' interpretations (Barthes, 1977), the ads fail to successfully counter criticism and bolster the industry's reputation (Ware & Linkugel, 1973).

Arguably, the cows are happy and healthy because they are well taken care of-fed, vaccinated, socialized, and sheltered. Yet the ads' only allusions to caring behavior are the scattered oak trees that provide shade and acres of pasture that provide sustenance. Not only do these portrayals omit greater industry realities, they omit the agents responsible for their provision (i.e., dairy farmers). Thus viewers may associate the Happy Cows' contentment and care with other agents. Industry critics might take the opportunity to here identify their role in protecting animals' welfare. Others may associate cows' general amicable nature as the premise that supports why California cows are happy, regardless of their care. In short, multiple other rhetorical (not dialectical or industry-sponsored) truths are potentially generated (Blair, 2008). Without indicating the agent responsible for the animal's welfare, the ads fail to provide premises that lead to their intended apologetic arguments.

Even when we consider other arguments beyond animal welfare, the ads come up shorthanded. Considering the exigencies that gave rise to the apologetic ads, the ads attempt to assert the following conclusions: dairy farmers are environmentally responsible, dairy farmers maintain health-conscious practices, and dairy farmers care for their animals. The narrow reality portrayed in the ads inhibits their ability to convey these messages. Moreover, the ads' lack of clear premises and even clear propositions prevent their apologetic arguments from being communicated effectively.

When the linguistic messages and visuals combined do not sufficiently direct the audience's attention, the derived conclusions can greatly range, to the detriment of the industry and the ads' apologia. Moreover, any original intended messages of the visuals may remain uncommunicated. Combined with the already narrow portrayal of reality, which elicits audience doubt, the audience is increasingly unlikely to accept, consider, or even understand any apologetic counterarguments within the visuals.


For rhetorical critics (and concerned consumers of California dairy products) the future use of visual apologia offers an intriguing open-ended case study. As this analysis has shown, some merits but also numerous caveats accompany the genre. For one, narrow portrayals of reality can be as problematic as staged portrayals of reality (e.g., Erickson, 2000). Because their omission still elicits doubt, their portrayal of reality becomes less persuasive. Omission, then, is especially problematic if reality is a crucial part of any apologetic argument. Visual rhetoric's tendency to allow propositions, premises, and conclusions to go mis/uncommunicated limits the genre's productivity in an apologetic context. Even so, visual rhetoric is highly engaging. If a rhetor's intent is to use visual rhetoric primarily to engage, then it may be useful in an apologetic context. Perhaps paired with other, more explicit forms of rhetoric, visual apologia could play a productive initial role.

In the context of the California dairy industry crisis, stronger, more explicit apologia is warranted to address the surrounding exigencies. Recently, the California Milk Advisory Board has begun to provide such rhetoric on their domain and YouTube websites through educational videos of interviews with California farmers. The videos are highly informative and directly respond to surrounding critiques by illustrating shared values between activists and farmers (Bostdorff & Vibbert, 1994). Many of the videos are explicit CSR messages, including a ten-minute video titled "Sustainability" (CMAB, 2015b) which features dairy farmers and argues that "The dairy farmer is an environmentalist.," Another video, "Cow Comfort" (CMAB, 2015b), opens with a seemingly unrehearsed statement by dairy farmer Barbara Martin, who says "I've never met a dairy farmer, that I've met or know, that does not love cows." The videos also utilize green rhetoric (Ihlen, 2009) as a form of apologia to advance counterarguments and potentially serve as inoculation that addresses future critics (McGuire & Papageorgis, 1961; Szabo & Pfau, 2002). Though open to doubt (Spangler & Pompper, 2011), these videos may be apologetically effective by minimizing consumer confusion and increasing awareness of the industry's environmental behaviors and values (Fernando, Suganthi, & Sivakumaran, 2014).

Regardless of their rhetorical potential, however, the CMAB educational videos are currently rhetorically insignificant. After two years of availability, most videos have only accumulated a few hundred views. It is not even clear whether these videos have succeeded in reaching non-dairy-literate audiences who, presumably, need their messages the most. As Bill Balthrop (1984) explains, apologia often addresses internal audiences to strengthen their resolve, but this does little to educate external audiences regarding misconceptions. Even if an external audience is reached, some critics question the rhetorical limits of greenwashed environmental rhetoric (Fernando et al., 2014). Organizations do well to simply provide members with consistent messages that explain organizational principles, reasons, and values. Perhaps the newer CMAB videos are meant to be such discourse, but until they begin to saturate public discourse, perhaps through social media and ideographs, the counterarguments embedded in these videos will remain dormant. As such, newspaper articles, PETA propaganda, personal blogs, and other public discourse continue, unchecked, to relentlessly mock and critique nearly every facet of the California dairy industry.

Pairing linguistic arguments with extended visual rhetoric, as the videos do, potentially augments their apologetic function. Displaying more comprehensive realities, the videos present a comparatively more transparent, truthful portrait of dairy farming. Boyd and Waymer's (2011) research on the language of organizational rhetoric may support the idea that visual transparency aids visual apologia. The latter conclude that, in contrast to strategic ambiguity, transparency can actually serve a rhetor's self-interest. Rather than presenting its own narrow version of reality, the CMAB can potentially defend itself, in part, by augmenting the portrayal of reality in its apologia-a reality that is not at all shameful, shocking, or inhumane but is interesting, robust, and diverse. Such transparency may help the dairy industry overturn critiques, which are themselves often based on narrow versions of reality and are easily countered.

In short, more comprehensive realism may serve as a useful strategy for visual apologia. Dairy farmers know and even vouch that "Great cheese comes from Happy Cows" and that happy cows, happy dairies, happy land, and happy farmers are therefore essential to the prosperity of the dairy industry. Dairy farmers are, after all, businessmen and women out to make a living, often a surprisingly small one. Rather than covering up the business side of the industry, narrowly presently dairy life, the CMAB could harness the fact that humane, environmental, and healthy dairy farming practices are directly correlated with the success of their farms and could educate the public about such connections. When backed with support, transparent visual apologia may respond to and counter much of the surrounding criticism. As a holistic representation of reality, this rhetoric may even illustrate that dairy farmers actually work in the same (pro-animal, pro-environment, pro-health) directions as many of the organizations and individuals critiquing them (Bostdorff & Vibbert, 1994).

Education as an effective apologetic strategy has been employed for ages. Publically circulated letters and writings of early Christians, for example, defended the budding faith through education (e.g., Ignatius, 2007). The corresponding challenge is to ensure a large audience is reached. If comprehensive realism, as an educational apologetic strategy, were combined with the engaging quality of visual rhetoric, the dairy industry's apologetic rhetoric might then have more of an impact. Such a campaign could potentially be as wide-reaching as the Happy Cow ads and more apologetically potent. This strategic combination has the potential to more productively assuage criticism, allure consumers, and secure the economic future of the industry and its families.

Further research related to the use of visual rhetoric as apologia is warranted. Much scholarship has explored the functions of visuals, but the growing nature of visual rhetoric merits further exploration. In animal industry specific contexts, scholars should explore how the humanization of livestock (e.g., the Happy Cow campaign, the Chick-fil-A cows, the Foster Farms chickens) potentially fuels industry criticism and hinders organizational apologia. Such scholarship may build upon research already being conducted about spokesperson characteristics and advertisements' use of talking animals (e.g., Aggarwal & McGill, 2012; Folse et al., 2013; Nenkov & Scott, 2014). Similarly, rhetorical analysis of the narratives at play in such ads may provide insight into their argumentative potential (e.g., Bianchi, 2011; Fisher, 1984; Redick & Underwood, 2007). In addition, the comparative functions of narrow and broad portrayals of reality in other types of visual apologia deserve continued study.

This study has begun to provide valuable insight into the rhetorical health of California's largest agricultural industry. Farm families funding the Happy Cow commercials have poured in millions of dollars and spent many hours working with their very own animals to produce advertisements for the Happy Cow commercials and related ads. The campaign, in turn, has garnered national recognition of the California dairy industry but has only begun to defend the industry against environmental, health, animal welfare, and economic concerns.

As this paper has suggested, the Happy Cow campaign's narrow portrayals of reality problematically elicit doubt, while its tendency to allow propositions, premises, and conclusions to go mis/uncommunicated limits apologetic productivity. Visual apologia, including that of the CMAB, may better defend through direct (or at least clear) responses to critiques and through transparent and comprehensive realism. The engaging qualities of visual apologia, however, should continue to be harnessed. Visual apologia that incorporates these strategies, not simply Happy Cows, may eventually neutralize industry critiques.


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(1) The present author hails from a California dairy fanning family. The author embraces this unique qualification with the understanding that researchers can never be objectively separated from their own values, experiences, and understandings (La Pastina, 2006; Medhurst, 2004), but they can harness these to produce robust research.

(2) Critiques of the dairy industry that are overturned rarely make headlines. One interesting exception appeared in 2010 in the in Los Angeles Times. The Times ran a story in their food section about multi-generation dairy farms (Jackson, 2010), which included a photo that alarmed animal activists. The Humane Society quickly responded, only to discover the animal in question was perfectly healthy; a follow-up was published in LA Times online (Parsons, 2010).

(3) For a comparable study on the cattle industry see: Elsbach, 1994.

(4) For a history of the use of antibiotics and hormones on dairy animals that incorporates the dairy industry's perspective see: Smith-Howard, 2014. Regarding recent milk testing protocol for residues see: Rushing & Wesen, 2014. Regarding preventative medicine and dairy animal care see: California Dairy Research Foundation, 2011; LeBlanc, Lissemore, & Kelton, 2006.

(5) According to the CMAB (2015a), science and dairy farmers' experiences prove that "dairy cows must be healthy and well cared for in order to produce high-quality milk. Cows under stress produce far less or no milk." As such, "California is home to many of the most modern, technologically advanced and efficient dairy operations in the world, financially capable of maintaining systems and best practices for herd comfort and care." Regarding dairy farm amenities see: Dairy Cares Report, 2013; Farm Progress, 2008; Hurty, 2014; Killian & Killian, 1998; Methvin, 2009; Northcutt, 2009; Smith, et al., 2006; State, 2011.

(6) A recent study conducted by the University of Arkansas revealed that, of U.S. emissions, the dairy industry is responsible for only 2 percent. Relatedly, the national dairy industry has decreased its carbon footprint by 63 percent since 1944 (CMAB, n.d., a; Thoma et al., 2013).

Catherine L. Riley, Ph.D. Candidate (A.B.D.), Department of Communication, Texas A&M University. The author thanks the editor, reviewers, Jennifer Jones Barbour, and Kirsten Russell for their patient and helpful suggestions. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Catherine L. Riley, Department of Communication, Texas A&M University, 4234 TAMU, College Station, Texas 77843. E-mail: CatherineLRiley@gmail.com

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A435794914