Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

When Cows Talk: The Happy California Cow Campaign as Visual Apologia

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

When Cows Talk: The Happy California Cow Campaign as Visual Apologia

Article excerpt

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. …

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