Look out Puget Sound, the Bag Monster is on the loose!By snordquist | March 12th, 2009 | Category: Business, Environment, Featured story, Get Involved, Politics, Science, Society |
By Sound News reporter Scott Nordquist
Imagine the alarm if all of your plastic bags united together and emerged from the depths of your kitchen drawer to form one super bag. For many Puget Sound residents this haunting thought has already become a reality.
A shocking howl rang out across the steps of the Capitol as a mound of garbage came to life. February’s Environmental Lobby Day bore witness to the region’s latest environmentally themed mascot. The Green Bag Campaign, a group working to introduce a 20-cent grocery bag fee in Seattle, showed off the newest addition to the team: the Bag Monster. Reactions varied from confusion to laughter as he strolled through the Capitol campus.
The monster acted as an attack dog for the campaign, claiming the plastics cause no environmental harm and mocking the idea of reusable bags. Toting a $1 million check made out to state legislators, he tried to “buy” their vote against the environment. Some observers attempted to ignore the spectacle while others ran up to ask for high-fives, hugs, and photo-ops. Once he had captured their attention, he took the opportunity to patiently explain the logic behind bizarre suit and encourage listeners support the campaign.
Already a common sight in many California cities, the monster is the brainchild of a reusable bag company called Chico Bags based out of Chico, CA. The costume consists of a pair of overalls hidden under five hundred plastic bags, the amount an average American uses during one year. The simplicity of the outfit and limitless availability of the plastics has allowed groups like the Green Bag Campaign to employ the character in its cause.
Last July, the group pushed Seattle City Council to approve a 20-cent fee as a way to encourage use of reusable totes and reduce the environmental harm caused by single-use bags. However, the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax collected enough signatures to stop the fee from going into effect in January. The issue will be put to a public vote in August. In the meantime, the Bag Monster will be a staple figure at events around Puget Sound.
In good company
The idea of adopting a mascot is not a new concept for environmental advocacy groups around the Sound. Ever heard of the Mud Monster? How about Mr. Floatie? Though each character is unique, their organizations agree that it provides a great way to engage the public.
MudUp merges the efforts of multiple parties to establish The Alliance for Puget Sound Shorelines. The group created the Mud Monster two years ago as an effort to recruit more people to volunteer for its projects. Rather guilt people to participate in a local native planting work party, kids and families can become “weekend mud warriors.” Decked out in an all brown suit covered in native plants and animals, the Mud Monster uses a positive spin to make getting dirty sound a little more fun. Program director John Daly asserts that the six foot green-haired monster catches attention. He stressed the importance of adding a “face to the campaign.”
Equally original yet more repulsive than the Mud Monster is People Opposed to Outfall Pollution’s (POOP) Mr. Floatie. Based out of Victoria, B.C., POOP created Mr. Floatie to educate the public about the problems of dumping raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Appearing in an outfit reminiscent of an all-brown Mr. Peanut, the cheeky character could hardly be considered bashful in his excrement metaphors. When urging the public to push for a state of the art treatment facility he declared “I don’t want just any old dump.”
Why they do it
All three of the creatures clearly share some ridiculous traits. While at times it may seem to trivialize the issue into somewhat of a joke, the shock value serves a purpose. One only needs to watch the Bag Monster or Mr. Floatie capture the gaze of every passerby.
Ellie Rose works with the Green Bag Campaign and knows what its like to don the mass of transparent trash. When appearing in humorless locations near the Capitol or outside of grocery stores, she said the playfulness is appreciated. Whereas many pedestrians might ignore a canvassing activist, the Bag Monster is an immediate talking point. It makes is possible to “win people over with charm.”
However, the initial hook must be supported with some substance. Rose asserted that “you have to be concise and get your point across quickly.” She sees it as a good means to educate the public. It’s a powerful visual and makes it easier to engage people.
Another important factor to the success of each is a strong multimedia presence. The Mud Monster has a website featuring not only his life story but also a page with regularly updated sightings. There are albums full of photos as he poses with volunteers. He has been photographed with Miss Emerald City and even beat out the likes of the Mariner Moose to earn the coveted “Hot Mascot” title awarded by Seattle Magazine.
Mr. Floatie goes a step beyond pictures with a whole series of videos on YouTube, including one with over 8,000 views. His theme song begins with a rhythmic tune, “I’m Mr. Floatie, the ocean poo. If you poo in Victoria, then I’m from you.” He also hosted his own event to raise sewage treatment awareness: a Toilet Bowl Regatta in Victoria’s inner harbor. Participants were required to complete the race while seated on a toilet boat.
The Bag Monster also displays traits of a media mogul. The San Francisco creature has a video with almost 30,000 views on YouTube. The idea is also catching on across the pond. A frequently updated blog reveals exploits of various monsters everywhere from Santa Monica to Croatia. Seattle’s Bag Monster is one of many who have their own Facebook page. The variety of content not only keeps the public entertained but also serves to facilitate ideas between fellow monsters and their campaigns. Current Seattle Bag Monster Jake Harris explained that he looked to his Santa Monica colleague as an example for character development.
Does it work?
Mascots are without a doubt a powerful communication tool for organizations to create memorable characters. Just think of some models: Mickey, Jack from Jack in the Box, Geico’s Gecko and the Philly Phanatic. They also appeal to the bottom line. According to “Mascots As Brands: ‘Well Worth The Investment” by Natasha Emmons, they are a cost-effective marketing tool.
Jean Claude Tremblay, owner of the mascot creation company Creations JCT, stated that it’s important to be friendly, yet, “the more weird the character is, the more people will love it.”
While the Mud Monster is creative, Tremblay’s point hits home with both the Bag Monster and Mr. Floatie. Each one relies on its unique appearance to garner attention. The man under the brown suit, James Skwarok, pointed out that “you can’t ignore a seven-foot turd.” And he was exactly right. Mr. Floatie, according to Skwarok, “was key to reigniting and keeping the issue in the media. This in turn helped to bring the issue to the attention of key politicians, who acted on the matter. It also put pressure on local businesses who didn’t want Victoria’s image to be tarnished.” The city’s Capitol Regional District is slated to spend an estimated $25 million on sewage treatment this year.
Emmons also cites that many successful mascots are a little bit sassy. The Bag Monster clearly demonstrates how a little attitude can add to a campaign. According to Harris, the beauty of the character is that he mocks the opposing view. An angry Bag Monster in San Francisco, the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags, complained that the liberals “say that I have got to go because a couple of marine mammals decided to eat me.” Following his California prototypes, Harris sarcastically employs the rhetoric of the other side to expose their logic.
“It’s a foolproof plan,” he explains. No opposition is going to want to enter into a heated policy debate with a guy covered in trash.