Not long after the onset of the West’s deadening drought, officials here saw the enemy, and he was Joe Six-Pack.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority determined nearly a decade ago that 70% its water went right into the ground, with no chance for recycling, thanks to an army of indulgent blue-collar homeowners, mostly married guys, who over-watered their lawns.
The conservationists fought back. They directed a powerful advertising firm — call them the Mad Men of the Mojave — to target lower- and middle-income suburban dads with beer-commercial-type dark humor spiced with a schoolmarm’s brand of discipline.
R&R Partners, the brains behind this city’s “What Happens Here, Stays Here” campaign that had already reinforced Sin City’s reputation as a often-naughty adult playground, devised a campaign on a decidedly less-sexy topic that was no less critical to the region’s future.
Their print and TV ads went for the jugular — and other body parts — with an inconvenient truth: Residents live in a desert.
In one spot, a homeowner answers the door while his front lawn sprinklers hit more sidewalk than grass. He encounters a tiny white bichon frise that suddenly lunges for his throat, knocking him to the doorstep. The fluffy dog then hurries off as a title appears:
“Don’t make us ask you again. It’s a desert out there.”
Another, even testier, ad shows a suburban water scofflaw answering the front door to find a frowning elderly woman with a cane. After his flippant “Can I help you?” she kicks him in the groin, as the same “Don’t make us” message flashes onto the screen.
The ads worked.
Between 2008 and 2012, the region saved 3.5 billion gallons of water, or 42.5 million gallons every day. Officials don’t credit ads for all the savings, but over 15 years, southern Nevada has reduced water use by 30%, while its population has grown by almost 20%, to 2 million residents.
In 2001, R&R Partners had devised a series of ads that emphasized saving the environment, including one that depicted a future where water was so precious it was delivered in bottles under armed guard.
Five years later, research revealed that the Las Vegas Strip — despite such features as the Bellagio fountains — accounted for just 4% of the area’s water use, thanks to casino recycling programs. The main culprit? Those guys with lawns.
A poll revealed that 87% of male homeowners said they were responsible for outdoor lawn care and that 60% did the work themselves, rather than a gardener or homeowners association. Women, on the other hand, were prodding their husbands to conserve, a plea officials found was mostly ignored.
“Our target was men,” said Scott Huntley, the water agency’s senior manager for public services. “We went after the low-hanging fruit, whom we called Joe Six-Pack.”
Which explains the groin kick.
“Men are simple creatures — so we could afford to be funny,” said Randy Snow, a partner at R&R. “Saving water isn’t rocket science. The guy who waters his lawn in the middle of the day is probably the same guy who thinks the Earth is flat, that Elvis is still alive and that ketchup is a vegetable.”
Another key strategy: placing the ads where guys couldn’t miss them.
Bars and casinos frequented by locals featured drink coasters with a water-saving message. Over urinals hung signs showing a photo of a lawn that said: “Get rid of your old drinking buddy.” One lawn removal rebate come-on encouraged: “Get off your grass; we’ll pay the cash.”
At “Monday Night Football” events, officials hosted contests where men threw bichon frise plush toys at targets to win a T-shirt with the agency’s Dirty Harry-style “Don’t make us” logo. The water ads also popped up at gas stations where guys filled their tanks.
With plain-speaking spots like the one that began “Just another day in the desert? Think again, pal,” officials targeted late-night TV and big games — times their research told them men were watching.
“You couldn’t drive down the street without seeing our billboards or watch TV without seeing our ads,” said former water authority boss Pat Mulroy. “They were in your face.”
The “water smart” message: Don’t be that guy who wastes a precious resource. Cover your pool to stop evaporation. Don’t water your lawn at noon, and reset meters so that you water less during the winter. But officials knew men wouldn’t tolerate sermons.
“We borrowed a lot of from Monty Python,” Huntley said. “We wanted to reach the same audience as those Miller High Life beer ads. We tried to tickle the male funny bone, which sometimes is a little masochistic.”
When critics called the campaign over the top, officials stood their ground.
“I would just laugh,” said Mulroy. “I’ll be honest, I couldn’t walk into a room without men wincing,” thanks to the swift-kick-to-the-groin ad. “One day while buying plants in a nursery, a woman yelled at me that her children were now afraid of bichon frises, and it was all my fault. What it told me was that the campaign was having results.”
Even the local park service griped about ads that showed Lake Mead, where southern Nevada and other Western states draw their water, so low that boats sat marooned on dry land. “They said the ads were bad for tourism,” Mulroy recalled. “Really, like I care.”
Polls showed that the ads had reached 90% of their target audience. Mulroy says there’s a lesson here for California, which has just announced new water-saving programs.
“You can change public habits,” she said. “It’s not just ads, but also a gentle raise in rates, just enough to get people’s attention, as well as rebates to help residents achieve their goals of using less water.”
Meanwhile, Las Vegas is changing, and officials plan ads for Spanish-speaking residents. For now, the old ideas still work. A recent spot shows a disapproving nun using a ruler to rap the knuckles of a water waster — in this case a brawny, tattooed motorcycle guy.
Newer conservation ads target various demographics groups, such as one showing a businessman mowing his lawn. The caption: “Grass: Not a good investment in the desert.” A poster features a Rosie the Riveter character flexing her muscle over the words: “Sod-Free and Proud!”
Officials say the most ominous water-saving message doesn’t come in any ad, and is something that millions see, not just Joe Six-Pack: It’s the image of Lake Mead — seen by those flying in and out of Las Vegas — with its parched white bathtub ring and plummeting water level.
Said Snow: “It’s as powerful a visual as there is.”