About a week ago, Fox News reported that one out of every three vegetarians eats meat when drunk.
If you read the article, you’d see that the study was conducted by (direct quote here) a “U.K.-based discount code website” called VoucherCodesPro. If your reaction to that phrase was anything like mine, you might wonder—what the heck is VoucherCodesPro, and why in the world should anyone trust a survey by it, or any “discount code website” for that matter?
Reddit user jpop23mn posted the article on reddit.com. In true reddit form, the comments section included no shortage of puns and one liners, and, fortunately, plenty of people who had some tougher questions, like wondering what in the world “VoucherCodesPro” is.
Despite the skeptical reddit comments, it garnered an incredible amount of interest, with nearly 5,000 overall upvotes, enough to ensure it remained visible on the reddit homepage for most of the day.
The headline itself is Internet clickbait gold. It’s a soft, cynical story that is prime for generating a ton of buzz, arguments, anecdotes and shares on social media. First of all, it’s a surprising statistic. Second of all, there are those who might simply find the story funny. And third, there are plenty of haughty anti-vegetarians who take articles like this and run with them, possibly because they might be a bit defensive about vegetarianism, and will jump at any opportunity to show that vegetarians are flawed.
There’s maybe no better exemplification of that response than on the popular Internet-based talk show, The Young Turks, who reported on the study. Check it out for yourself. The co-host, Ana Kasparian, who once shared this unoriginal video, showed off some anti-vegetarian smugness and shared a personal anecdote as additional proof.
What’s far more troubling than any of that, however, is the overconfidence with which she delivers the survey results of this random UK-based discount code website, and how easily her co-panelists and the audience seem to slop it up, like a bowl of cinnamon maple oatmeal made with almond milk.
Why is that troubling? Because I can say with 90% confidence that this study is completely made up. All of that “data” that Fox News and The Young Turks discussed as fact? Made up. Fake. Nonsense. Pulled out of thin air.
I’m giving myself a 10% margin of error, because I can’t discount (pun intended) the small possibility that the company actually did conduct some type of study, even though I’ve found zero proof of it. Plus, if a random UK-based discount code website can make up numbers, then so can I about how confident I am!
And with that, I give huge props to another Ana, this one spelled with two n’s. Anna Starostinetskaya is a writer who did call bull on this story. She writes for VegNews, which, sure, obviously has a (tofu) stake in this game.
As Anna puts it, “The problem is that the . . . source—a United Kingdom coupon code site called VoucherCodesPro—has revealed no evidence of this study . . . VegNews reached out to VoucherCodesPro, as well as the various writers behind the third-party articles, but nobody could point us to the study in question.”
Reddit, Fox News, and The Young Turks were not the only third-party media outlets that reported the study as truth. Far from it.
Tons of local TV news shows, national morning talk shows (like Live With Kelly and Michael), and radio shows covered it as well.
Not to mention the huge numbers of shares and retweets on Facebook and Twitter.
Phew. All of that, thanks to a small, scrappy UK-based discount code website.
I don’t know if Anna heard from anyone at the website. I made my own attempts, and have not heard back at the time of this posting. But I put my Internet sleuth skills to the test to see if I could find any answers. And here’s what I discovered:
Exhibit A: Nick Swan VoucherCodesPro is a coupon website. It was created a few years ago by a guy in the UK named Nick. This is according to VoucherCodesPro’s own About Us page. (I’m going to shorten the site’s name to VCP from here on out.)
On Nick’s Twitter page he says he’s a programmer and a fan of golf. Seems like an okay dude. The company that owns and runs the website is MSH Limited. Nick’s the only owner, officer and shareholder. (You can check the UK government’s records on that.)
Exhibit B: George Charles The press release for the drunk vegetarian study on VCP’s website—which is basically what all of the various news sites copied and pasted (or “reported” on)—states that a guy named “George Charles” is the founder of VCP.
Wait a second, I thought Nick is the founder? Let’s check the About Us page again. Hm, it lists about 10 staffers. No George. Not even a Charles. Certainly no George Charles. And there’s no George Charles listed anywhere in the UK corporate filings. The ‘In the Press‘ section seems to confirm that Nick is the founder.
I’ll chalk it up to be being a careless typo. Because if you search for “George Charles” and VCP, you won’t find mentions of him in any context other than in articles about VCP surveys, and he’s either referred to as a founder, a marketing director or a spokesperson.
The press release, along with other prior surveys, quotes George himself. And almost all of his quotes end in exclamation points!
I really couldn’t believe the stats from this research! I know a few vegetarians who sometimes crave meat, but it seems that a few are giving into their cravings when drunk! —George Charles, Founder (or spokesperson?) (or study organizer?) (or marketing director?)
Imagine any other author of a major survey quoting themselves with exclamation points. “Our study found the cure for diarrhea! It’s totally cool and insane and quirky! I’m a responsible, trustworthy authority on this subject!”
Sometimes Nick, the true founder (apparently), is also quoted in the VCP press release blog posts. And sometimes his quotes have a lot of exclamation points, with a similar sort of pace in the sound byte. Like this one, from a VCP study on how much people spend on their pets:
Britons seem to be spending a lot of money on their pets! Having a pet is a great privilege and really does make a difference to your life, in my opinion. I’ve got a cat called Carragher and he really is like another member of the family! —Nick Swan, Founder (probably)
There is no biographical information about George. In fact, I can’t find any other mentions of him, other than press releases, which news outlets pull quotes of his from. There’s no Twitter page. No Linkedin page. Nothing else about George on the VCP website. Maybe George, despite his exclamation point exterior, is a recluse and doesn’t want to be listed on his own company’s website. George Charles, you sneaky, possibly non-existent company executive!
Exhibit C: The Studies
If you make any search for VCP and either “George Charles” or “Nick Swan,” you’ll find dozens of studies that VCP has allegedly conducted. They all tend to follow the same couple of patterns: such as confirming or exploiting a stereotype or suspicion people have about a group, or about consumer spending habits.
Men spend a lot more than women when they go out!—as reported by Metro.
People steal at self-checkout counters!—as reported by the Telegraph.
Men lie about how much they spend on engagement rings!—as reported by Mirror.
BMW drivers are the most aggressive car drivers on the road!—as reported by NBC News. Ugh, not you too NBC News!
The BMW one interested me, because like vegetarians, BMW superfans are a narrow class of people who might be perplexed at the results (compared with broader, less-likely-to-be-offended groups like “men” or “self-checkout shoppers,” prideful BMW drivers might actually be offended). Sure enough, I found a thread on a BMW fan site called Bimmerfest, with at least a couple of people questioning who the heck VCP, the source of the survey, actually was. But no further digging by anyone there. Some people just went along with the survey’s results.
But where are these studies?
I looked at VCP’s last year’s worth of study blog posts. None of them link to any hard results. There is nothing about the methodology. There is no hard data. They just follow the same formula. There’s a glaring lack of evidence that VCP actually conducted any studies whatsoever.
See VCP’s original content for yourself: People hate how much time they spend on their cellphones. Men crave fast food, women crave chocolate. The drunk vegetarian study (see above). People spend a lot on their pets. And so on. Where’s the proof?
Conducting a legitimate study, after all, is extremely expensive. I couldn’t find any recent numbers on this, but this older article from entrepreneur.com explains that surveys cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars to administer, especially for larger surveys like VCP’s that involve interviewing thousands of people. How can a company of its size afford to churn out 6 or so large surveys each year?
The writer of The Daily Beast article (Vlad Chituc) managed to speak to someone involved with VCP. From Mr. Chituc: “I did exchange emails with a member of the PR firm that represents VoucherCodesPro, but they preferred not to be named and gave me a rough description of the methodology. In any case, these results should be taken with some healthy skepticism.”
I wish Vlad would expand on that, but it seems he was left unconvinced. He received only a “rough description” of the methodology, and he urges his readers to exercise some “healthy skepticism.” Unfortunately the headline to his article is a conclusive “Why Drunk Vegetarians Eat Meat.”
Exhibit D: SEO You Later
Golf and programming aren’t VCP founder Nick’s only interests. On his Twitter page, he says he’s also interested in marketing and SEO. And SEO might explain all of this.
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” That’s the process of increasing the visibility of a website without paying a search engine for advertising. Or put differently, it’s about different tips, tricks and strategies to get your website seen by as many people as you can. The goal is to get the various search engine algorithms to give more weight to your website, so that it appears higher in Google search results. (Or Yahoo, or Bing, or Lycos. Does Lycos still exist? Just checked, it does.)
There are tons of perfectly ethical ways of optimizing your company’s visibility on the Internet. There are also some unethical ways.
Creating a completely false and made up survey about click-baity topics that will likely get spread around the Internet, with your company’s name and website plastered all over the place? That’s more on the unethical side of the spectrum.
It’s also pretty bold. These studies all plug the VCP website like crazy. There’s no attempt to say these studies came from anywhere other than a coupon website. And so many of these huge news outlets have fallen for the bait. If it turns out these are all completely fabricated studies, then wow. I’d really like to know what Nick thinks of this. Is he surprised at how easy this all is? How did he get media outlets to notice the studies? Did he count on so many writers to not put in any effort to verify the studies? Or to demand a copy of the surveys? Or to speak directly to someone from the company who can speak competently on them?
Oh, and those 10 staffers listed on the VCP website? It looks like only three or maybe four of them are actual people. The rest seem to just be fake names connected to Twitter accounts that churn out content as part of the site’s SEO strategy.
I think you get the point already, so I’ll try to sum up my final thoughts on all of this.
1. If I’m Wrong: If I turn out to be wrong about VCP and about these polls being completely made up, I strongly suspect the truth isn’t much better. I imagine that these numbers could have been pulled from online targeted surveys. Maybe something like one you’d get offered to participate in while browsing Facebook. Or a poll a marketer displays for people who browse shopping websites.
Such surveys are not reliable, or scientific, or trustworthy. While I think such a survey would be more ethical of VCP, it still looks really, really bad for the media to trust VCP. Which brings me to #2.
2. Not A Good Look For Journalism: When you see all of these news outlets report the same thing, you have to assume at least one reporter—if not two, three or all of them—spent some time verifying the study. Apparently none of that happened. Again, I’m still holding out a small percentage of hope that I’m wrong about this. But I’m just some random Internet blogger. It’s up to one of the many reporters who passed along these surveys to scrutinize their sources. Like Anna over at VegNews did. How, apparently, did not a single one of these reporters, after they typed (or copy and pasted) the words “a survey by coupon website Voucher Codes Pro,” stop and think to themselves: What? Is this a legitimate source?
To be fair, there are many publications that haven’t posted any VCP marketing nonsense. I didn’t find any Wall Street Journal articles citing VCP as a source, for example. And Wall Street Journal is a publication that would love to report on a good consumer spending study.
3. If It’s True: When I first saw the headline about the drunk vegetarians, and I saw how widely reported it was, I admittedly trusted it. If the survey has any truth, it shows vegans as weak-willed phonies. With that said, when push comes to shove, I don’t like when people run with generalizations like this. If 30%, or even 90%, of vegetarians ate meat while drunk—that shouldn’t stop someone from being a principled vegan with a modicum of will power who doesn’t. It’s also unfair to the 70% of vegetarians who are principled. Attack a set of beliefs based on the rationales behind it, not stereotypes or a caricature of the believers, even if there’s a small amount of truth to it.
The next thing I thought about is the one or two people I’ve come across in my time being a vegan, who told me that they, too, are vegetarian, but then quickly followed that up with, “Oh, I also eat chicken.” To be clear, barely anyone says that, but it’s not totally unheard of. So to the extent there are people who are vegetarian plus, chicken, or kabobs, or burgers—these people aren’t vegetarian! Vegetarian plus chicken and burgers literally describes the standard diet of much of the developed world. Just because a person labels themselves something doesn’t make them that thing. Being a vegan or a vegetarian is purely an action-based belief system. You either commit to doing it, or you don’t.
And it’s not a lot of food that separates vegetarians from non-vegetarians. Although that small amount of animal product has a major impact on the animals, the environment and health, it’s small enough to show how easy and do-able vegetarianism actually is. I touched on this in my vitamin and mineral post. My point is, it’s really not a daunting amount of food you need to replace. Swap in a Field Roast patty, or a BBQ tofu steak, or a Mexicali black bean sliders for your lunch sandwich—and Gardein meatballs, or walnut meatballs, or tempeh meatballs for your dinnertime spaghetti, and there’s a decent chance you’ve replaced all of your meat for the day.
4. Don’t Discount Good Studies: It’s a bummer that these phony studies are so pervasive. People already don’t trust all the health and nutrition studies that flood the media every day, and in some cases, rightfully so. This massive journalistic lapse certainly won’t help matters. But there are actual good studies out there, by actual reputable institutions (not coupon code marketing websites), from actual trustworthy journals.
Take this article from Forbes as an example. It’s about the link between eating red meat and an increase in heart disease. The study was conducted by the Cleveland Clinic and it was published in a reputable journal.
There’s also this self-contradictory study: The Avocadbro recently found that 100% of UK-based coupon code websites are highly untrustworthy sources of…well, anything besides coupons.
This has been another edition of Law & Order: Special Vegans Unit.