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Shock Treatment
Will a clean water group’s grotesque ad campaign succeed?

By Larry Sussman
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris 

There’s a young boy gasping, standing chest-deep in a swimming pool. A girl grips her stomach and covers her nose as she recoils in disgust. An even younger girl in goggles is shrieking. Focus on the chocolate-colored gobs lolling in the pool water, and you’ll realize why.


This stomach-churning image ran for nine weeks last summer and fall on a 14-by-48-foot billboard facing a section of Interstate 94/43 near Howard Avenue. The tagline read: “Pet Poop in the Pool?! Make a Splash. Protect our Waterways.”

It was just one of four rather repulsive images pasted on six billboards in Milwaukee and Greenfield. They were sponsored by the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, a regional clean water coalition better known as “Sweet Water.” (Not to be confused with Sweet Water Organics, the urban agriculture organization based in Bay View.)

And the clean water group, funded in part by the Joyce Foundation in Chicago and steered by local government reps and other partners, isn’t done yet. Using $150,000 in grants from the state Department of Natural Resources and matching funds from area municipalities, it will roll out an even more brazen campaign focused on television ads and online media, not billboards, over the next two years.

“We purposely chose a bombastic approach to get people’s attention,” says Jeff Martinka, Sweet Water’s executive director. “It wasn’t done on a whim. Folks don’t have a sense of their role in protecting our lakes and rivers.”

Martinka, 54, was a Milwaukee County lifeguard for more than 10 years, but during that time, he never swam in the river. “I can assure you that I did not,” he says.

In a 2010 survey of nearly 400 people living within the Greater Milwaukee watershed – a basin spanning 1,100 square miles – 84 percent said their actions don’t have an impact on water quality. But 90 percent of the pollution in said watershed comes from “non-point sources,” says Martinka, such as dog poop left on a home’s lawn or other unsavories that drain from the landscape.

The first ad campaign cost about $40,800, with 10 area communities helping to pay for it, including Brookfield. “We want to spend our limited tax dollars on ways of improving stormwater quality that are efficient,” says Tom Grisa, Brookfield’s director of public works. “That’s why I think that this very graphic campaign was helpful.”

Greenfield pitched in $2,800, but its director of neighborhood services, Richard Sokol, remains a skeptic – even if the billboards got people’s attention. “I wonder if it convinced them to change their behavior or their habits,” he says. “It’s not the approach that I would have taken."

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