Save the Crabs



The Academy for Educational Development, a non-profit organisation specialising in social change communications, implemented a campaign to reduce nutrient pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay from residential sources in the greater Washington D.C. area.

Funded by the Chesapeake Bay Program, the primary campaign goal was to convince area residents not to fertilise their lawns in the spring, when fertiliser runoff to the Bay is most likely,  but to do so in the fall, if at all. For the 16 per cent of residents who hire a lawn service, the goal was to convince them to hire a Bay-friendly partner lawn service.

To overcome message fatigue from previous Bay-oriented campaigns and motivate this urban audience with a meaningful connection to the Bay, the campaign message was framed not as an environmental appeal, but as a way to ensure the continued availability of Chesapeake Bay seafood. Television, newspaper and out-of home ads ran for a seven-week period during March and April 2005. A second campaign wave ran during the same month in 2006.

In spite of a small budget and short campaign run, a post-intervention survey showed increased awareness of lawn care behaviours that contribute to Bay pollution and decreased intent to fertilise in the spring.

Getting Started


The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the US. A complex ecosystem, it includes the bay itself, its rivers, wetlands, trees and land that encompass parts of six states and the entire District of Columbia (D.C.). Surrounded by a human population growing by more than 100,000 people each year, multiple sources of pollution threaten the Bay, its sea life and the livelihood of tens of thousands of people who depend on it for employment.

Nutrients from agricultural waste, sewage treatment plants, lawn fertiliser and other sources are either deposited into the Bay directly, or washed into the Bay via storm sewers and the region's many rivers. Once in the Bay, nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorous) upset the ecological balance by promoting the growth of algae.

These algae are a double-edged sword. They block out sunlight necessary for the growth of sea grasses, which are the primary breeding ground for many sea creatures. When these algae die and decompose, they deplete oxygen from the water, again depriving sea life of a necessary element for survival.

In 2006, the greater D.C. area had about 2 million households with roughly 530,000 acres of lawn. Every year, excess lawn fertilisers in the D.C. primary metropolitan statistical area (PMSA) contributed about 4.7 million pounds of nitrogen and 560,000 pounds of phosphorous to local streams and rivers leading to the Bay. An estimated 11 per cent of the total amount of nitrogen loading from this area came from lawn fertiliser.

The Chesapeake Bay Program (an inter-agency coordinating body charged with Bay cleanup and restoration), state and local governments, and advocacy organisations had worked for decades to reduce nutrient pollution from the largest sources, namely agriculture, sewage treatment and urban runoff. Both regulatory and voluntary programmes implemented in these sectors had significantly reduced nutrient contributions to the Bay. The time had come for a programme focused on the general public.

In March 2004, the Chesapeake Bay Program funded the Center for Social Marketing and Behavior Change at the non-profit organisation Academy for Educational Development (AED) to design and implement a communications campaign targeting the residents of the greater D.C. area. This campaign would strive to change personal behaviours that impact Bay water quality and heighten awareness of Bay pollution among this audience of busy yet socially aware and often influential individuals.

Chesapeake Bay Program logo

Hundreds of campaigns, political issues, partnerships, agendas and proposals had been launched to save the Bay since the first comprehensive survey began in 1967. The concept of yet another campaign to save the Bay would have to fight message fatigue and scepticism about its messages and motives.

Social marketing campaigns rely on creating a meaningful ‘exchange’ in which the audience enjoys valued benefits in return for performing the target behaviour.  The campaign would need to find such a benefit that was valued by this urban and suburban audience.



A focus on lawn fertilisation

Fertilisers contain high levels of algae-promoting nutrients that lead to a reduction in underwater grasses, the most critical habitat for blue crabs and other Bay creatures. Areas of the Bay covered in grasses were home to about 30 times more underwater life than barren areas. Without this habitat, there were fewer areas for juvenile sea creatures to live and grow.

Waiting until fall to fertilise lawns had a triple benefit:

  1. Keeping more fertilizer on the lawn where it could do its job, due to less rain
  2. Promoting grass root growth instead of blade growth, making the lawn stronger and healthier than with spring fertilisation
  3. Being less harmful to the Bay, as less fertiliser would be washed into it, and fertiliser that did reach the Bay would do so outside of peak algae bloom season

Choosing fall lawn fertilisation as a target behaviour made sense for a number of reasons, including:

  1. Lawn care was probably the single individual action individuals had control over that most affected Bay water quality
  2. Changing lawn care behaviour by waiting until fall to fertilise was not hard to do
  3. Lawn fertilisation was a public behaviour that was subject to social reinforcement

AED convened a one-day retreat with local watershed managers, academics and other stakeholders to review the behaviours to be targeted and other behavioural options for the campaign. A consensus was reached that changing lawn care would have the greatest potential to impact Bay water.

Setting objectives

The Chesapeake Bay Program could allocate only limited funds to develop and launch the campaign (US$594,000, over half of which was to be allocated for paid advertising) for an 18-month period of time, and naturally wanted to accomplish something meaningful. The decision was made to focus on three practical goals that, if accomplished, would contribute to a much wider and sustained effort:

  1. To refresh attention to the Bay's problems in a large-scale population suffering from message fatigue
  2. To bring a new group of stakeholders to the table
  3. To popularise a new target behaviour with significant potential to improve water quality if implemented on a large scale

The objectives that were selected for the campaign, or the products being marketed, involved two simple behaviours that required a lot of structural support and attitude change, but not much effort, to accomplish:

  1. To get homeowners with lawns to fertilise their lawns in the fall rather than in the spring
  2. To get those who hired a lawn service to use Bay-friendly lawn services

Objectives for the percent of population reached and percent who changed behaviour were not set prior to the campaign.

Lawn mowing

Getting informed

AED conducted a random-digit-dial telephone survey of approximately 600 area homeowners. The survey corroborated the finding of previous Bay watershed surveys that although a large portion of the target audience expresses concern for the environment and the Bay, this concern rarely translated into environmental action. The survey also confirmed that most people in the area had no strong personal connection to the Bay. A number of focus groups were also carried out with homeowners with lawns.

Other findings were that:

  • An attractive lawn was important to homeowners
  • Approximately 84 per cent of homeowners did their own yard work and 16 per cent hired a lawn service
  • Those who cared for their own lawns were most likely to fertilise in the spring only, or to fertilise in both spring and fall

Target audiences

  • Residents of the Chesapeake Bay area who fertilise their lawns primarily in the spring
  • Lawn care services
  • Lawn care product providers
  • Policymakers in Maryland

The strategy

The blue crab is a regional icon. For centuries, Chesapeake Bay blue crabs were considered the best blue crabs in the world. They once provided an indispensable food source to early Native Americans and later to colonial America. In addition, they provided a critical employment base for the fishing and restaurant industries across the region. Of all the species under threat, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab was the best known and best loved.

Chesapeake blue crab harvests had declined to near record lows at the end of the 20th century. The three-year (2001 to 2003) commercial harvest average of 50 million pounds was 32 per cent below the long-term average (from 1968 to 2003) of about 73 million pounds per year. In 2003, the Chesapeake blue crab harvest hit a nearly historic low.

Crab poster

After four months of surveys and planning, the Chesapeake Bay Program and AED decided the trick was to sell the Chesapeake not as an abstract environmental cause, but as a source of beloved local seafood. The campaign theme of ‘saving the crabs’ was born. While people in the D.C. area had only limited concern for the Bay, many were passionate about their seafood – as evidenced by the many thriving seafood restaurants throughout D.C. and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Reframing the problem of a polluted bay as a culinary, not an environmental, problem was the cornerstone of the campaign.



Stakeholder engagement

Lawn care partners were a critical part of the strategy. Messages to fertilise in the fall would fail if there was no fertiliser available in the fall. Lawn care providers were therefore recruited to co-develop and offer customers a Bay-friendly service option. Early discussions with local university researchers and extension agents and lawn companies themselves had indicated that by limiting the timing and quantity of fertiliser applied, lawn services with the proper technology and training could apply fertiliser throughout the growing season in a Bay-friendly way that the general public could not.

Meeting with the major lawn care providers in the region initially met with resistance, but the strategy of promoting specific brands on the campaign website (in return for offering a Bay-friendly service option) helped reduce the resistance.

The campaign managers recognised that lawn fertilising was a spring ritual for many homeowners. Therefore, it also tried (unsuccessfully) to develop and promote an alternative spring lawn care behaviour to take the place of spring fertilising. An effort to partner with Scotts, a major manufacturer and marketer of lawn care products, to develop an estuary-friendly product for use in the springtime, fell short. Program planners discovered that new product development lead-times are considerable and such discussions are better held at higher levels of an agency, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Branding and messaging

Although the campaign was sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Program, with funding from EPA , the campaign was branded the ‘Chesapeake Club’, in order to create a sense of membership, participation and practicing a behaviour that was the accepted social norm – a sense that ‘this is what people like me do’ (norm appeals). Also, the Chesapeake Bay Program generally was not associated with edgy or break-through communications, and its usual outreach included sending news releases on algae blooms and sewage plants. This approach had achieved limited success, beyond promoting periodic concern among already receptive local audiences.  This campaign sought to be a real departure from the Program’s typical approach to generate cut through.

Mass media messaging focused on waiting until fall to fertilise, as this was the desired behaviour for 84 per cent of the target audience. The other 16 per cent were also targeted, but with a message of hiring an environmentally responsible lawn service. Messages emphasised creating a healthy lawn, as opposed to a green lawn.

Chesapeake Club logo


Three television ads (two 15-second spots and one 30-second spot) were developed, each encouraging viewers to wait until fall to fertilise their lawns and each using humour to lighten the message. Each ad featured a personality (college graduate, geek, or lazy older male) that homeowners with lawns (generally middle- or upper-middle class and middle-aged) could identify with (i.e. were like them, or like their children). 


These television ads were pretested using a virtual focus group of 24 individuals (acquaintances of the campaign staff) who were not connected to the campaign and who were members of the target demographic (homeowners with yards). The ad clips were emailed to focus group participants, each of whom provided feedback. All respondents were able to correctly describe the intent of the ads and most liked them and found them persuasive (two respondents mildly objected to saving the crabs merely to be eaten).

An additional 30-second public service announcement (PSA) was also developed and offered to Washington television stations (but is unclear how often it ran, if at all).


In addition, five similarly themed out-of-home executions were developed as posters to be displayed inside the cars on two Washington Metro lines reaching suburban Virginia, as well as on the kiosks and banner space in Union Station – the final stop for the Maryland and Virginia commuter trains.

Crabcake poster


A campaign website was developed to reinforce the fall fertilisation message and offered additional information about how to create a healthy lawn using Bay-friendly techniques. Ads drove viewers to the website, where they would find not only lawn-related information but also suggestions for fun day trips to the Bay area and seafood recipes. The site also listed Bay-friendly lawn care partners.

Restaurant coasters

Branded ‘Save the crabs, then eat ‘em’ drink coasters were printed and distributed without charge to local seafood restaurants, to use and hand out to patrons. The coasters sported the ‘fertilise in the fall’ message on the back, and restaurant wait-staff were informed regarding the purpose of the campaign and why fall fertilising was more environmentally sound. In this way, restaurants also became partners in disseminating the campaign message and as an extra incentive were also promoted on the campaign website.

Brochures, decals, door hangers and lawn signs


A colour brochure promoting the Chesapeake Club lawn care option was provided to all participating lawn care partners for distribution to existing and potential customers. To increase visibility of participation, lawn care partners were also given free Chesapeake Club promotional items to provide to their clients. These included window stickers, door hangers and lawn signs. The message on the door hangers, for example, was ‘No appetizers were harmed in the making of this lawn’.



Advertising and website

To focus maximum attention on the ads, the campaign was launched with a press event in early March 2005 at Johnny’s Half Shell seafood restaurant. At the event, local chefs convened and signed a petition asking D.C. area residents to wait until fall to fertilise, or to hire a Chesapeake Club lawn care partner so they could more reliably serve delicious local Chesapeake seafood. Two local network affiliates covered the story.

Paid TV and print ads ran at the time of year (March/April) when most homeowners were contemplating lawn care. This helped ensure that a significant number of people would see them often enough to absorb the message.

A total of 1,312 rating points of airtime were purchased on Washington's 4 major broadcast television networks over the 7 weeks of the campaign, beginning with a 2-week launch at 250 rating points a week. This reached 83 per cent of the intended television audience an average of 14 times over the campaign period, or about twice a week.

Print ads ran once a week in the Sunday Washington Post and in a free tabloid handed out at Metro stops called Express (also owned by The Washington Post Company). Six of the 14 ads urged readers to consider asking for a Chesapeake Club lawn service and 1 listed the names and phone numbers of participating lawn services. These ads were also made into flyers and handed out, along with drink coasters, at major subway stops.

Appetisers poster

Several components of the campaign were disappointing, including the following:

  • Some lawn care partners were unhappy that most of the ads featured the message of fall fertilisation, without pairing it with the option to hire a Chesapeake Club partner lawn service. Insufficient time was allotted for development and distribution of print collateral to support the lawn care partners, who each year begin customer outreach as early as January. As a result, they were unable to promote the Chesapeake Club service option along with their first customer contacts of the year
  • ‘Hits’ to the campaign website were much lower than expected, possibly due to the web address being insufficiently prominent in the advertising

Media stories

Media opportunities were pitched to local news outlets and national newswires throughout the seven-week ad run and a number of stories ran as a result. Several media outlets were interested in the angle of a non-environmental theme for an environmental campaign and others focused on the partnership with lawn care companies, which they deemed an unlikely but beneficial partnership. A number of news outlets outside of the target area, including the Los Angeles Times and an English-language radio programme in Germany, picked up on the story of this unusual approach to environmental advocacy.

Outreach 2

Stakeholder support

Based on the popularity of the campaign in the greater D.C. area and the media buzz it generated, several policymakers demonstrated their support for the cause by taking advantage of related photo opportunities and mentioning the campaign at press conferences. This helped to generate valuable earned media for the campaign.

Local restaurant chefs became unexpected advocates for the campaign, proactively joining the Chesapeake Club as part of their commitment to serving great seafood – and saving the seafood in the Bay. The campaign’s culinary approach, where reducing nutrient pollution was framed as a way to ensure the continued availability of Chesapeake Bay seafood rather than as an environmental issue, made it a natural fit with the interests of the many seafood restaurants in the Chesapeake region.



Measuring achievements

A post-intervention random-digit dial telephone survey was administered over 2-and-a-half weeks, beginning the last week of the television buy, again reaching 600 area residents who reported they cared for their lawn or hired someone to do it. Respondents were asked the same questions regarding environmental concern and practices as in the pre-intervention survey, with the addition of several others to determine whether they had seen, remembered and liked the ads. Homeowners were also asked whether they planned to fertilise this year, and if so, when.

Behaviour change

While respondents were asked in both the 2004 and 2005 surveys when they planned to fertilise their lawns that year, close analysis of the data showed their answers had been recorded differently for the two surveys. The data for this response were not considered valid for comparative or evaluation purposes. However, inferences were drawn from comparing those respondents who were exposed to the campaign (i.e. recalled a major theme) with those who were not.

After the campaign in spring 2005, 42 per cent of those surveyed reported that they were planning to fertilise their lawn in the spring (the behaviour the campaign tried to discourage). Although not statistically significant, 46 per cent of those not exposed to the campaign planned to fertilise their lawn in the spring, compared to only 40 per cent of those who were exposed to the campaign.

Post-campaign survey data suggest that an unintended consequence of the campaign may be that it influenced some people to stop fertilising their lawns at all. A statistically significant difference emerged, such that 30 per cent of those who were exposed to the campaign reported they were not planning to fertilise their lawn at all in 2005, compared to only 22 per cent of those not exposed to the campaign.

Outreach 3

Reach and recall

Of those surveyed, 44 per cent were able to recall the Chesapeake Club brand and/or the ‘Save the crabs, then eat ‘em’ tagline, without any prompt other than asking if they had heard anything this year about fertiliser use and the Chesapeake Bay.

Despite a campaign budget that was small in comparison to that of the Scotts lawn product company, the Chesapeake Club brand gained a respectable level of brand recognition. When the campaign name and tagline were included in a list of brand names read to respondents in the post-campaign survey, 76 per cent of respondents recognised the Scotts brand, while 43 per cent recognised the Chesapeake Club brand and/or the campaign tagline of ‘Save the crabs, then eat ‘em’.

Post-campaign survey data suggested that some people had heard and retained the basic message of the campaign. When those who reported hearing something about fertiliser use and the Bay were asked what they heard, 38 per cent said they had heard that they should not fertilise in the spring and/or that they should put off fertilising until the fall. These respondents recalled the messages without being given any prompts.

Outreach 1

Another indication the campaign met or surpassed its intended reach was that respondents to the post-campaign survey remembered seeing the ads on television (29 per cent), in the newspaper (18 per cent), on billboards (17 per cent), on subway cars (10 per cent), and/or on a flyer or drink coaster (4 per cent). Again, these responses were unprompted. (It is worth noting, however, that 26 per cent also recalled hearing messages on the radio, when no radio ads were produced).

Brand and tagline acceptance

Few people seemed to dislike the brand or tagline. Of those surveyed who recognised the phrase ‘Save the crabs, then eat ‘em’, 50 per cent liked the tagline and 43 per cent had no opinion, while only 7 per cent disliked it. Of those who recalled the Chesapeake Club brand, 34 per cent reported liking the name, 65 per cent had no opinion and only 1 per cent disliked it.

A surprising number of people (approximately 100) took time to email via the website to express their appreciation of the campaign messages and use of humour. The most frequently made comment was that the campaign should print and sell ‘Save the crabs, then eat ‘em’ T-shirts. Surprisingly few people (four) wrote to express displeasure with the suggestion that one should save the crabs solely so they can be eaten.


Follow Up


After the initial campaign aired and was evaluated in 2005, AED was re-hired to run a smaller refresher campaign in 2006. Television advertisements ran for a total of 3 weeks in March and attained 454 gross rating points over the life of the campaign. An estimated 2 million people saw the ads an average of 5.6 times each.  

Greener poster

AED also captured the learnings of the Chesapeake Club Save the Crabs campaign in a Program-in-a-Box Guide Book. This all-in-one guide was intended for municipalities interested in implementing similar water quality outreach campaigns in their own areas. The guide contained a CD-ROM with all of the TV and print ads used in the campaign. The guide was provided to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and has served as the basis for subsequent versions of the Save the Crabs campaign in other parts of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Lessons learned

  • The campaign's use of partnerships significantly enhanced its penetration and overall success. By recruiting a potentially adversarial group of stakeholders (lawn care companies) and making them campaign spokespeople, the campaign gained reach and legitimacy
  • Seafood restaurants and their chefs were natural but untapped allies – a vested interest in preserving Chesapeake seafood, plus free coasters and free publicity, made partnering with them nearly effortless
  • While a worthwhile pursuit, tackling an environmental problem upstream (like partnering with a manufacturer to develop an alternative product to replace spring fertilisation) likely requires more time and effort than a one-year campaign can support
  • The campaign approach of reframing the issue to appeal to the target audiences' stomachs rather than their environmental consciousness was sufficiently newsworthy to gain significant media coverage, also enhancing the campaign's reach and legitimacy. A campaign media buy need not be exorbitantly expensive to have measurable impact. Again, messaging that is unconventional and contains an element of humour can help compensate for minimal media buy dollars
  • Reframing an environmental problem as an issue with a stronger connection to a target audience can help to refresh the environmental message and tune in audiences that may have tuned out
  • Reframing an environmental issue can also help bring new and unexpected partners to the table

Lunch poster


This case study has been adapted from the article ‘Save The Crabs, Then Eat Em: A Culinary Approach To Saving The Chesapeake Bay’, which was published in Social Marketing Quarterly (Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 2006). We thank the authors and publisher for allowing us to do so.

Key facts



Target audience





March 2004 to September 2005; January to September 2006


Chesapeake Bay Program; Academy for Educational Development


US$855,554 from the Chesapeake Bay Program