Goofy campaign, or genius marketing strategy?

On a recent drive through northern Virginia back to Philadelphia, I heard a PSA on the radio (somewhere around Fredericksburg, Va.) that caught my attention. This particular announcement was voiced by children who seemed very concerned about the fate of the blue crabs of the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay. Little Johnny and Little Jane were describing the plight of the blue crabs, who apparently are choking and suffocating on fertilizers that wind up in runoff water that channels into the river and eventually the bay.

fightcruelty-theme-donatead-020614Now, I’m a pretty soft touch when it comes to animals and the environment. Do NOT play a Sarah McLaughlin song around me if you don’t want me to immediately weep at the images of beaten and abused dogs and cats that have been permanently impressed into my gray matter through the ASPCA ad campaigns. If you don’t tear up at those images, I can only assume you have a heart of stone. It’s easy to be sympathetic to soft, cuddly animals like cats and dogs, but I also have a great concern for wildlife too. After all, I work at an arboretum and preserving nature and its living systems is part of our mission. However, I never thought before about a blue crab suffering at the bottom of a river, suffocating on toxins that we have shamelessly infused into their ecosystems. And Little Johnny had me ready to stop along the Chesapeake Bay and start dumping what was left of my bottle of water into their little habitats, if only to help diffuse the chemicals. That it was something so ludicrous and so obviously ineffective didn’t matter–I HAD to take action! Little Johnny and the crabs needed my help!

Then Little Johnny stopped me in mid-fantasy of starting my own blue crab shelter and preserve when he got to the end of his call to action and hit the campaign’s tagline: No crab should die suffocating in oxygen depleted water. It should be steamed and eaten with Old Bay and melted butter.”

Wait. What?

Did Little Johnny and Little Jane just decry the horrific suffocating fate of blue crabs only to advocate them being steamed alive and eaten? Well, in short, yes they did.

studentsForget that I’m not much of a fan of seafood. The announcement made me laugh aloud as I thought about how silly it was to try to save the crabs from one fate, only to subject them to another man-made end. It stuck with me all the way home, how silly these kids sounded and how the marketers obviously used children for a good old tug on the heartstrings–“Oh how wonderful we are! Little Johnny and Little Jane are growing up to be an environmentally-friendly generation. Let’s all pat ourselves on the back.” I started to resent being subjected to–and in fact, pulled in by–the campaign. Didn’t they understand how hypocritical they sounded? I decided this was definitely fodder for a blog post.

But then something happened. I kept thinking about the PSA. And really, isn’t that what a good campaign strives for? To keep you thinking about something long enough to be converted into taking action? I no longer feel the need to start my own crab preserve, but I can say that after more than a week after hearing one single PSA on the radio, this is a good communication effort. Let’s break it down:

  • The campaign is targeted. Obviously, I never heard this PSA outside of the Rappahannock River/Chesapeake Bay area. The people there are very familiar with the crabs, apparently enjoy eating them, and some of those people’s livelihoods actually depend on the crab season.
  • While it may seem a little gimmicky to have kids deliver the message, I can say that the change from adults on paid radio advertisements to the sounds of children’s voices effectively cut through my highway hypnosis (an amazing feat in itself) and made me listen. And you know what? It DOES point to a more ecologically- and environmentally-friendly generation, a generation that is making toxin-free food sources a priority.
  • It is a coordinated effort. From ads to t-shirts to community partners to a robust website to Facebook to a logo and a “Skip the Fertilizer” slogan AND a documentary, this campaign is hitting all the right notes in a concerted way.

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Because this PSA was nagging at me, I decided to Google it and see if there was a website. Sure enough, it was not hard to find and was full of information that was laid out in an easy to navigate. The copy is easy to understand and avoids jargon. And instead of just demonizing the use of fertilizer (I’m an organic kind of girl myself, but this is communications–try to move people into a latitude of acceptance, right?), it offers alternatives to spring fertilizing and even has tips for fertilizing better for your garden and the larger environment. For crying out loud, they even have crab recipes on there. When I checked out the Facebook site, I was surprised to find photos and events and LOTS of user comments and engagement. To my amazement, I even found out that students from Richmond County Public Schools are the kids that are providing the voice over talents for the PSA’s.

Wet my plantsSo basically, I have backtracked my stance on this campaign from one of ludicrous hypocrisy, to one of great job on a regional issue. In a way, it reminds me of the Rhett and Link commercials for local businesses. At first look/listen, I thought, “Wow, how could anyone think this is going to attract business?” But when I thought about it some more, those ads are GENIUS in the way they play on stereotypes rampant in locally produced commercials and make them so memorable, that you want to find the business behind the commercial just to meet the people who have such a great sense of humor. Don’t believe me? Check out the Red House Furniture commercial and then try to tear yourself away from watching more Rhett and Link local commercials. This is the crux of today’s issue–create a campaign that, just like melted butter seeping into fresh crab meat, lingers in your audience’s mind enough to make them seek out additional information. That’s when conversions will happen.

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