Water district's in-house campaign spoofs movies and cringeworthy comics

From concepts to casting and media placement, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California employees had talent on tap.

They’ve already heard the stereotypes—that a public affairs office of a government agency isn’t the first place you’d think of going for creative advertising. 

Yet, the employees at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California just created a campaign that is as memorable as anything out of Playa Vista, at a fraction of the cost. These "bureaucrats" conceptualized, storyboarded, cast and rented the cameras to shoot a new campaign about water conservation. Then, the employees devised media strategy and placed most of the spots themselves. 

Being in Los Angeles meant there were plenty of Hollywood dreamers ready to write and art-direct, along with departments of people volunteering to be extras. 

"You know, in LA everyone is an actor," said Susan Sims, Metropolitan’s manager of external affairs. "It helped that some of our staff, including some of the extras, are people who are interested in drama, interested in the industry. We have media staff who either worked in journalism or the movies in one aspect or another."

The district’s new ad campaign features three spoofs on entertainment classics, each with a punchline about conserving water, more than a necessity in drought-prone Southern California.

One spot, "Wasting Water is Scary," shows a young girl, lying awake in bed. She shrugs off seeing a Chucky-type doll on a chair, the same goes for the "It" style clown under her bed. She walks down the hall and opens a door, where we find what is truly frightening her. Her father is letting the water run while he brushes his teeth. 

The house, with an appropriately long hallway for the heroine to tiptoe down, belonged to a staffer’s sister who lives in the San Fernando Valley. 

A second commercial, "Wasting Water is Tragic,"  uses the familiar "Romeo and Juliet" story. The romance is over when Juliet, looking down from her balcony, doesn’t care that there’s a gushing sprinkler head in her front yard. Romeo promptly unfollows her. 

The location for this one was a house with a balcony that belonged to a neighbor of a district employee.  

The third spot, "Wasting Water is Offensive" centers on a stand-up comic. He’s performing to a club filled with Metropolitan Water District extras. He loses the audience when he dumps water over himself, pretending to be a sprinkler in the rain.

At the end of each spot, viewers are directed to the district’s site, Be Water Wise, for conservation tips and rebate information.

"They did all of it, they had to get permits for the young actors, insurance, costumes, locations, all the things any professional firm would have to do," said Sims.

The campaign is running on YouTube and connected TV devices including Apple TV, Chromecast and Roku, targeting entertainment, lifestyle and sports programs that core audience homeowners would watch.

The campaign broke a week ago and will run for three months. Analytics from YouTube are showing that the spots are memorable enough that approximately 50 percent of viewers are not skipping, but watching to the end of the 38-45 second ads. Typically, only 15 percent of YouTube viewers stick around for the entire commercial. 

This do-it-yourself creative/production budget topped out at around $15,000, said Sims, about a tenth of typical campaigns. 

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California stretches from Ventura County down to San Diego County. It provides water for 19 million people, bringing water in from Northern California and the Colorado River, which can be a point of friction with residents of those areas. Conservation is a vital message, but one that can get tiresome to hear. 

"I think we felt like our regional messaging was getting a little bit lost," said Sims. "People get drought fatigue, water-conservation fatigue. We did not want to focus on jargon and draconian rules and regulations about saving water."

She hopes that the livelier messaging will lead to more thoughtful water usage. Meanwhile, district creatives are already working on follow-up executions. 

"I am sure that some came to work at a public agency and were wondering if they were tossing in the towel on their creative dreams," said Sims. "In terms of staff morale, this is giving us the opportunity to foster a culture of innovation."

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