A humor-based mass media campaign backed by the Bay Program that urged people to “save the crabs…then eat ’em” successfully raised local awareness about the Bay while drawing notice from across the country.

Further, the “Chesapeake Club” mass media campaign that was tested in the metro Washington area this spring caused some people to alter the way they use lawn fertilizers, according to a follow-up survey.

That was a surprise, given the modest $300,000 advertising budget for the seven-week campaign.

“We were able to move the needle in terms of behavior and awareness, and that in itself was really quite an accomplishment,” said Judy Landers, project director for the nonprofit Academy for Educational Development, which designed the campaign. “We honestly didn’t expect as much of an impact as our survey said that we got.”

The aim of the campaign was to get people to postpone fertilizer use until the fall to reduce the potential for springtime nutrient runoff, which is particularly harmful to Bay water quality. Further, many university extension agents recommend fall as the most effective time to fertilize lawns in this area.

The campaign, launched in late February, implied that by reducing fertilizer use, people could help save the crabs—which are susceptible to poor water quality—so they could be caught and eaten. It used television ads, brochures, coasters, subway placards and other outreach efforts, and enlisted a number of lawn care companies and chefs to promote the campaign.

A follow-up telephone survey found 72 percent of those contacted had seen the campaign, and 44 percent remembered its key message. Of respondents exposed to the campaign, 38 percent said they would use fertilizer in the spring, while 43 percent of respondents who were not exposed to the campaign said they would fertilizer in the spring—a result suggesting the campaign had successfully influenced some people’s actions. Each survey contacted 600 people and had a 4 percent margin of error.

“The media buy we had for the campaign was quite a bit smaller than we’ve had for some of the larger campaigns that we do,” Landers said. “But in the big picture, the campaign had some really important successes.”

The campaign also attracted news media coverage in the region, and was the focus of a feature article in the Los Angeles Times.

Chesapeake Club was also highlighted among “Campaigns We Love,” by Free-Range Thinking, a monthly communications journal for public interest group.

The journal credited the campaign for using humor “instead of excessively sober, do-the-right-thing messages” to get people on board and said “environmental groups around the U.S. that have been looking for new ways to connect with their audiences may want to keep an eye on this unorthodox effort.”

Chesapeake Club was the Bay Program’s first-ever attempt at “social marketing,” which uses traditional practices developed for commercial marketing and applies them to achieve some social good. The campaigns rely on using market studies to determine how to most effectively sell the behavioral “product.”

In the case of the Chesapeake Club, surveys showed that it was more effective to sell the benefits of a clean Bay to consumers through the seafood connection, specifically crabs, rather than through more general messages about cleaning up the Bay.

“People are generally very concerned about the environment, and that was indicated in our research,” Landers said. “But most people aren’t moved to do anything differently just for the environmental benefit alone. So we threw in the seafood because that is more of a personal benefit. People want to be able to go out to their favorite seafood restaurant and eat some really fresh crab.”

The result was a humor-based campaign with messages such as “save the crabcakes.” One television ad showed water running down a storm drain with a narrator warning that fertilizers in spring runoff cause crabs to slowly suffocate from a lack of oxygen in the water.

“No crab should die like this,” the narrator says as the ad shows a crab lying still on the shore, waves washing over it. “They should perish in some hot, tasty, melted butter,” he adds, dipping crabmeat into a bowl and eating it.

Chris Conner, the Bay Program’s director of communications, said that social marketing holds promise as a tool to alter public behavior in ways that help the Bay, and may become increasingly important as the watershed’s population continues to grow.

Social marketing to clean up the Bay, Conner said, may be just as accepted as a cleanup strategy a decade from now as biological nutrient removal at wastewater treatment plants—a controversial tool just 10 years ago—is today. “Social marketing can be the same type of innovation for people in the watershed,” he said.

With more work, Conner said, it may be possible to quantify the amount of nutrient reduction that might be achieved through advertising campaigns—and determine whether they are cost-effective compared to other nutrient control techniques.

No decision has been made about whether to continue the campaign next year, or whether to expand it to other metro areas. The next effort might be less costly, Conner said, because much of the budget for this year’s effort went to develop the campaign—expenses that would not have to be entirely repeated.

Some tweaks might be made in the future if the campaign is continued. Among the lessons learned, Landers said, is that any future effort should start earlier. Chesapeake Club enlisted a number of lawn service companies to participate, but by the time the campaign stated in late February, many had already sent mailings to their clients and therefore were not able to present the option to postpone fertilizer applications.

In addition, further campaigns might benefit by marketing “save the crabs, then eat ’em” T-shirts. The campaign generated about 100 unsolicited requests for T-shirts, creating the potential for “viral marketing,” where other people carry the message. The fact that such requests were made was noteworthy, Landers said. “You’ve got to have something pretty catchy to get that type of buzz going.”

For information, or to view the ads, visit the Chesapeake Club web site: http://www.chesapeakeclub.org