Radically goofy: Mister Splash Pants and the Geography of Hope

Well whaddya know. Calgary Journalist Chris Turner has written an outstanding article about the phenomena of Mister Splashy Pants for the Globe and Mail. I say “outstanding” not just because I’m button-popping proud to see this blog sited as a news source — he’s latched onto and articulated some really good stuff about how digital social networks are changing activism, and how all of us hoeing our rows in the fields of social change need to change the tone and voice with which we speak to those networks.

And there was one name that just barely made the final cut. As Greenpeace International official Brian Fitzgerald later explained on his blog, Mr. Splashy Pants was nearly lost to “the self-censorship instinct.” Mr. Fitzgerald and his colleagues thought it was funny, he wrote, but they also worried it was “undignified.”

Still, Mr. Fitzgerald and his colleagues decided to “push back” against internal censorship, to share with their audience “what amuses and inspires those of us within the walls and below the decks.” In other words, to rethink the marketing of social causes. And in fact, this might be Mr. Splashy Pants’s most significant message: If you presume to speak to the masses about society’s ills and how to correct them, do it in their language — and admit it’s also yours. Be their conscience, sure, but address them as friends would.

Marketing consultants often talk about the importance of “stickiness” — a concept codified in Malcolm Gladwell’s mammoth bestseller The Tipping Point that refers to the almost mystical ability of certain kinds of information to cut through the thick undergrowth of the digital age and adhere to everything they touch.Mr. Splashy Pants was, in this regard, like digital Krazy Glue.

Now this is not the first Mister Turner has mentioned Mister Splashy. He penned an encouragement to vote for MSP, “Or El Splasherino if you aren’t into the whole brevity thing…” at his blog, the Geography of Hope as a blow against “hectoring humourlessness.” And he knows whereof he speaks. He brings to the piece a unique perspective as a former Greenpeace canvasser who burned out and retreated.

I left the job at the end of the summer utterly exhausted at the prospect of saving whales or old-growth forests or the life-sustaining ozone layer — at least if their salvation required me to spend another day trafficking door to door in fear, guilt and despair.The work was not without its giddy interludes. In the evenings, campaigners drove back to the student house serving as Greenpeace’s Kingston office and ate and ranted together, drank beer and passed joints, kicked hacky sacks and sang songs, giggled our asses off and howled at the moon.

The exuberance of those nights, though, was no match for the earnest pleading of the late afternoons and early evenings, the grim reiterations of ecological horror and impending doom on doorstep after doorstep. If we were in the business of saving the planet, I wondered, why couldn’t it be a joyous business?

I let my Greenpeace membership lapse the following summer and, for many years after, I saw nothing in my occasional encounters with the organization to win me back to its fold. Instead, I saw the same damning messages strung from bridges, the same trafficking in symbols of toxicity and ruin. The same unceasing joylessness.

Which is why the sudden appearance of Mr. Splashy Pants — a phrase so silly it could have emerged from one of our late-night bull sessions — was so captivating. It made its case in a chortling instant: Greenpeace had somehow found its funny bone and used it to hatch possibly the most infectious viral marketing campaign in the history of environmental activism.

And there it is — that stark contrast between the Greenpeace that insiders know and the Greenpeace which shows its face to the public — a schism we in the web team have been chipping away at for some time now with blogs and crew profiles, a less formal voice in our web content, and positive campaigns like Green my Apple. For an organization which is so full of life and humor and heroism and fine barroom story fodder, how can we be perceived as dark grumpy grinches?

This is one of the things that our Comms Director, Francesca Polini, identified as an essential challenge in communicating the Greenpeace identity — rising out of the trap of negativism, of nay saying, of solutionless doom-mongering: one of the most consistent negative impressions of the organisation she found in opinion polling on three continents.

In my favourite bit of anecdotal response to one of the focus groups, one participant declared that if Greenpeace were a person at a party, they’d be talking incessantly and nobody else would get a word in edgewise. Ewwwww. I hate those people.

So hats off to Mister Turner for buying a t-shirt and being the only journalist who has really seen into the soul of the Mister Splashy Pants story, and the important lessons it holds for Greenpeace and the environmental movement in general. I especially liked this:

But Splashy is more than just an online punchline. The environmental movement has asked us for decades now to protect “the divine spirit of the ocean,” and still the peril remained imminent for all those humpback whales. We were moved, instead, to save Mr. Splashy Pants.Just 10 days after Greenpeace officially christened Splashy, the Japanese government declared a moratorium on their humpback whale hunt for this season. The official explanation didn’t mention it, but just maybe the whalers realized there would be consequences for the cold-blooded murder of an animal whose name might as well be a synonym for fun.

globeandmail.com: Radically goofy

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1 thought on “Radically goofy: Mister Splash Pants and the Geography of Hope”

  1. So cool! 🙂

    makes me think of those famous lyrics…

    It’s what you wear from ear to ear and not from head to toe”

    Remember you’re never fully dressed without a smile!”

    Mr. Splashy Pants was like adding the smile to an already very well dressed whales campaign.

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