Ingrid Newkirk, President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and Kevin Lawson, President of the National Vegetarian Society, knew they needed a new approach to recruiting new vegetarians and vegans.
"Americans weren't relating to the typical veggie campaigns featuring these slim, trim, happy-looking people glowing with health," explained Newkirk. "It was clear we needed to create a radical shift in people's perception of vegans and vegetarians. So when we started looking for spokespersons for our new 'Get the Veg Edge' campaign, we specifically targeted people who didn't fit that typical veg stereotype."
They found them in two utterly average Americans, 43-year-old Karen Barnes and 51-year-old Jeff Kleeman. Jeff has been a committed vegetarian since he was 26 years old, and Karen has been completely vegan since the age of 16.
Like most Americans today, Karen and Jeff are overweight, at risk for heart disease and diabetes and other diet-related diseases, and are not in any way, shape or form "healthy." They're also stressed out, unhappy and generally discontent. And, by their own admission, they're not particularly nice people.
At a "Get the Veg Edge" appearance at a Knights of Columbus meeting in Wichita, Kansas, Jeff, wearing a gray sweatshirt and faded blue jeans, the waistband of which struggled to contain his ample gut, told the entirely male audience, "You don't have to be healthy to be vegetarian! I've been vegetarian for 25 years, and just like you, my favorite vegetable is and always has been the potato. Preferably deep-fried. I can't even tell you the last time I ate something green. Probably when I was 10."
That comment clearly caught the attention of the broccoli-avoidant men in the house.
Jeff continued, "Not only that, being vegetarian gives you a priceless advantage with the ladies. A lot of women these days are vegetarian and want to find a vegetarian guy - and there are none! If you go veg, I guarantee you will have your pick of the babes."
Ears perked up, male audience members leaned forward in their chairs. It was evident that Jeff was alerting these "guys' guys" to vegetarian advantages that had never before occurred to them. Jeff's voice lowered to a near-whisper.
"Just between us guys, I have gotten more booty being veg than you would ever freaking believe. And don't worry," he assured his avid listeners, "you won't have to stop being a douchebag. Women will think it's cool that you're vegetarian and that you're maybe more sensitive than the average guy. But they also don't want you to be a pansy. I think that's why ladies seem to love when veggie guys act like a complete jerks. Trust me on this. There is nothing hotter to a woman than a vegetarian asshole."
He finished off with some practical tips for wannabe vegetarians.
"Cheese, cheese, and more cheese," was his ultimate recommendation. "Put cheese on everything, hell, put cheese on cheese! Cut it into sticks and deep-fry it, put it between some bread and deep-fry that. Screw grilled cheese sandwiches - give me a deep-fried cheese sandwich any day. Not to be crass, but just like with certain sexual acts, once you try one of those, there's no going back to regular."
Karen's vegan story was just as compelling to ordinary veg-curious Americans.
Karen, who tips the scales at over 350 pounds, told a group at Madison Square Park, New York City, "People have all these false assumptions about being vegan. The main one is they think you can't have any junk food. Wrong! There's tons of delicious, nasty-ass vegan junk food. Potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips - all vegan. Peanut butter, falafel, oreos, ginger snaps, Ritz Crackers - vegan. Just about every kind of store-bought frosting - vegan."
Karen explained to audience members that, over time, she's learned to be extremely creative in her ongoing quest for better and nastier vegan junk food.
"People sometimes say, oh, I can't go vegan because I could never live without peanut M&Ms. Well, believe me, once you've tried peanuts mixed with Duncan Hines dark chocolate fudge frosting, you'll want to live without peanut M&Ms." She added with a sly smile, "And throw some caramel frosting in there and you'll realize you were never really living before."
One final vegan myth that Karen blew to pieces was the notion that being vegan necessarily equates with being fond of animals.
"I can't stand animals," she told a Junior League group in Dallas, Texas. "Same with kids. Can't stand 'em. But obviously, even though I hate kids, I'm not gonna go out and kill 'em and cook 'em and eat 'em, and I'm not gonna pay someone else to do it. I mean, one of the ways you identify psychopaths when they're kids is seeing if they torture animals. I certainly don't claim to be a nice person, but I'm not a psychopath. And I'm not going to kill a chicken or torture a cow to get its body fluids. That's just common sense."
The "Get the Veg Edge" campaign geared toward average, everyday Americans has succeeded in recruiting over 38 million new vegetarians and vegans - and the veg numbers are still climbing.
And it appears that Karen's and Jeff's spokesperson roles won't be ending with the "Get the Veg Edge" campaign; they've both been hired for a national stop-smoking campaign aimed at people who are health-aversive but would like to quit smoking for financial reasons. Both Karen and Jeff are ex-smokers who turned to veg junk food as an emotional alternative to cigarettes.
"Knowing they have that option could be just the thing to help average Americans quit," said Karen. "It worked for me."