If you really want to get your point across and leave an impression on people, sometimes the best way to do so is by creating a memorable mascot.
Many successful public service campaigns have had a fictional spokesperson (or spokes-animal) imparting valuable wisdom in the form of a quippy slogan: Smokey Bear says “Only you can prevent forrest fires,” Woodsy Owl says “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.”
So when one organization wanted to spread water safety awareness to curb drowning accidents, they came up with a mascot of their own. But they decided to take a … less-cute approach.
Their mascot is the grim reaper … or rather, the “Swim Reaper.”
The character is the work of Water Safety New Zealand. “Each year over 100 people drown in New Zealand. It’s a shocking statistic considering most drownings are preventable,” Chief Executive Jonty Mills explained.
“We want all kiwis to enjoy the water this summer, whatever activity they participate in. We also want them to go home safely to their families at the end of the day.”
So why does the Swim Reaper want to spread awareness about water safety?
He doesn’t: the Swim Reaper wants beachgoers to behave dangerously.
If they meet a watery death after not following the rules … well, that’s one more soul for the Swim Reaper to claim.
It’s a grim bit of reverse psychology: This cheeky reaper encourages “dummies” to engage in reckless behavior like boogie boarding on slippery rocks and stunt jumping off waterfalls.
But there’s actually a good reason for using this indirect approach.
Unlike many safety campaigns, the Swim Reaper isn’t just meant for children—it’s aimed at young men, who make up a disproportionate amount of drowning accidents.
“33% of the preventable drowning deaths so far in 2016 are young kiwi males between the ages of 15–34,” Mills writes.
The Swim Reaper’s darkly comical, social media-friendly campaign makes him an appealing character to young men—much more so than a straightforward, lecturing mascot.
“This audience can react badly to being told what to do—it is a struggle to get positive safety messages through to them,” Mills told The Sun.
“Through the Swim Reaper’s dark humor, he illustrates the deadly consequences of making bad decisions around water.”
“Our overall safety messages remain the same this summer; be prepared, watch out for yourself and others, be aware of the dangers and know your limits,” Mills explained on the campaign’s website.
“We hope the Swim Reaper will take on a life of its own and really connect with young people.” And, a year since he made his debut, it’s clear that he’s made quite an impression:
The Swim Reaper currently has over 211,000 followers on Instagram.
That’s quite an audience for a public service mascot—and just maybe the image of death waiting around on the beach for a slip-up will be enough for people to avoid becoming his latest victim.
Hopefully the day comes soon where the Swim Reaper finds himself out of business.