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The water safety campaign that saved lives by peddling stupidity

Social & Digital

The water safety campaign that saved lives by peddling stupidity


How Water Safety New Zealand used ironic black humour to achieve cut-through with young males in the Swim Reaper campaign.

This article originally appeared in The Intelligence Issue, our April/May issue of Marketing magazine.

Campaign: Swim Reaper

Client: Water Safety New Zealand

Agency: FCB



MK0417 coverThere’s a reason young males disproportionately make up more than one-third of preventable drownings in New Zealand: stupidity. Let’s be clear – it’s not that young men aren’t smart. They just have a tendency to make some dumb calls around water. Give them a ridiculously high cliff to jump off and they’re as happy as can be. So, if you’re tasked with trying to modify this behaviour, as Water Safety New Zealand has been, how do you go about talking to a group who is highly cynical and detest being told what to do?



Given that young males are so at risk of drowning, they were an obvious target for Water Safety New Zealand’s summer campaign. But it’s easier said than done.

Our first challenge would be to talk to and engage with this group in a relevant way. If we could do that, then we could start a conversation with them and even get them to spread our message for us. This latter part would be especially important given the modest budget – the campaign would need a large organic reach. Once we had our audience in place and they were engaged, we could then work in the longer term to convince them to modify their behaviour and make smarter decisions around water.

The medium and the tone of voice would be all important – where do we talk to them and how?


"I love the movie titanic... but it takes SO LONG to get to the good bit"

“I love the movie titanic… but it takes SO LONG to get to the good bit”


Our target demographic does not like being told what to do. And its members are too cynical to take positive water safety messaging onboard, like, ‘Hey kids, have a safe summer!’ That’s not going to work. Instead, we’d have to find another way in. So, we set out in the opposite direction.

Our strategy would be to use black humour to ironically encourage bad behaviour around water.

"They say one in every two guys is a dumbass. I’m going with red shirt #everybreathyoutake #everymoveyoumake #illbewatchingyou"

“They say one in every two guys is a dumbass. I’m going with red shirt #everybreathyoutake #everymoveyoumake #illbewatchingyou”



Since this dark sense of humour wouldn’t sound right coming from an authority figure, we decided to invent a character to be our mouthpiece. The logical choice – the person who would benefit most from more fatalities – was death himself. The Swim Reaper set up shop in channels which enabled him to speak in a very targeted and relevant way to young males; namely Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. His profile would set the tone for what was to follow.

His posts would serve two purposes. Some of them would demonstrate his omnipresence – wherever there’s water, you would find him waiting. For example, with binoculars in hand, looking out to sea, he posted: “Getting my Baywatch on at the wharf. Don’t count on me for mouth to mouth though. #gross #gotnolipsanyway”.

Other posts would more directly point out all the bad choices, which lead to fatalities by explicitly encouraging them. On the topic of drinking and swimming, for instance, The Swim Reaper had some really solid advice. With beer in hand, he wrote: “This is what I call ‘swimmin juice’. Knock back a few of these and just relax into drowning.”

Another common pitfall, jumping into rivers without looking under the surface, was also advocated, because there was nothing to fear. After all, “log will catch you”, the Swim Reaper claimed.

He didn’t stop at just posting his own content though. By searching out relevant hashtags, he could also track down other Instagram users’ posts to comment on. On finding one such post, of a young guy jumping off rocks, he commented: “Sick shot bro! If ur gonna make dumb decisions this summer, can I have your stuff?”

"This is what I call “swimmin’ juice”. Knock back a few of these and just relax into drowning"

“This is what I call “swimmin’ juice”. Knock back a few of these and just relax into drowning”



His black comedy stylings have earned him a sizeable following. After eight weeks, The Swim Reaper’s Instagram account has proved popular, garnering more than 17,000 followers. That in itself would have been considered a huge success, beyond all expectations. But, ideally, we had wanted a high level of engagement from these followers. And that’s exactly what we got. Comments and likes from his followers on Instagram currently total more than 70,000.

Across all social platforms, his photos and videos have reaped over four million impressions.

While our safety message has been further propagated with the help of organic sharing of the campaign by fervent fans, leading to The Swim Reaper being profiled as a Staff Pick on imgur.com, the home of the internet’s most viral images. This was just the kind of organic reach we had hoped to achieve. On Facebook alone, for example, more than 64% of the impressions were not paid for. Comments from followers of the campaign attest to its popularity.

To further extend our reach, we engaged with influencers to spread our message on Facebook.

The Cougar Boys and Jimi Jackson, both with followings numbering in the hundreds of thousands among our target market, were commissioned to shoot skits in their own comedic styles. The videos on swimming-related topics featured cameo appearances from The Swim Reaper, who was always loitering, just waiting for our influencers to screw up.

Key messages were then reinforced in a retargeting layer, which presented those who had interacted with the campaign, with paid posts on Instagram as well as in the form of online banners, further extolling the virtues of stupidity. One such banner read, “Rocks are just big softies. Always up for a good face hug.” It was in this layer that
the campaign line was introduced to stamp a full stop on our messaging – “Swim dumb and you’re done.”

The goal of the campaign, as mentioned, was to talk to this hard- to-reach group in a relevant way and get them following and engaging with our content, so that our message would seep in by means of a more osmotic process. So, we weren’t looking for a quick win. It was something that was going to take some time.

That said, while the target group of young males normally make up more than one third of preventable drownings, this year was different. The peak holiday swimming period of 19 December to 15 January saw drownings of young males total zero.

We hope this is a sign of things to come in the future.

"#tbt reapin’ the waterfalls with my trusty steed #giddyup #mypony #squadgoals "

“#tbt reapin’ the waterfalls with my trusty steed #giddyup #mypony #squadgoals “

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