Mermaids Hate Plastic: Anatomy of an anti-marine litter social media campaign

As readers of Resource are all too aware, there’s a growing crisis in our seas: plastic pollution. It’s gained a lot of media attention lately, but not enough to (ahem) stem the tide flowing to the oceans. San Francisco-based artist Von Wong decided to do something about that, though, asking of society’s enduring love for disposable plastic bottles: How do you get people to talk about something ordinary, ugly and boring?

The answer, he decided, was to make something ‘extravagant, unique and different’ – in this case by putting a mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles and then ensuring the ensuing images (below) were shared as widely as possible. He later took some time to respond our questions about his campaign (even farther below).

Did anything specifically prompt you to start this project? 

I’ve been wanting to do a plastic pollution related piece for a long time but never knew how to approach the topic. Things all started when my mom found a designer who made plastic mermaid tails and forwarded it to me!

How does it relate to your other work?

All my work is about trying to leverage a single moment of disbelief to educate and inspire. 

How was the project funded?

My friend Didier and I funded it out of pocket – it cost us a few hundred dollars each. Everyone came to work for free, the plastic bottles were sponsored by TOMRA and the location by Power Dekor. All the artists donated their time, effort, talent and materials. 

How did you go about collecting the bottles and finding people to work with? You seem to have a knack for getting people to volunteer to take part in your work; can you tell us a bit about that?

I have almost a half a million followers across my different social platforms, which definitely helps a lot when gathering volunteers. I think people come to be part of something greater, to see how things are done, and to just connect with like-minded people. 

What did the shooting process entail? 

I made a video to specifically explain the entire process:

How have people reacted to the images so far? Your campaign to get people to pledge to reuse has attracted over 10,000 signatures so far – are they pledging just to reuse plastic, or have people indicated they’ll reuse other things as well? 

The pledge is to reuse as much plastic as possible. I believe that behavioural changes are all about small steps. The simple signature is a small commitment to yourself to be conscious of your everyday decisions. From there, it’s really up to the individual to make a difference if they want to or not. It’s like quitting smoking – it’s not one advertisement that will do it, but a whole series of events that lead up to one tipping point. I just want to part of that process. 

Have people said they would change their environmental habits in a wider way because of it? Have you?

I’ve received quite a few messages from people who said that the project has educated them about something they never knew was such a big issue and even more who have said that they were going to change their behaviour. 

I’m a city kid at heart, not an environmentalist – so I have also been trying to change my personal habits to minimise the use of disposables. 

As you feel it’s important that this work is shared widely so that people see it and are inspired to take action. How have you ensured that it’s seen by as many people as possible?

This article was taken from Issue 87

I’ve put together a giveaway to encourage people to share and sign the pledge, shared it with every single reporter I know, reached out to a bunch of environmentally-friendly news outlets and spammed it to a bunch of Facebook groups! I’ve even tried to get celebrities to share the story but that hasn’t been very successful just yet... 

How is this project developing? 

The sharing has gradually slowed down over the last few days, but I’ve had some pretty big news outlets that have said they were going to run the story so I'm waiting for those to create a little bump in the schedule. :) 

Will you do any more images of this kind or related to the theme of waste and recycling? How else do you think ‘boring’ waste could be transformed into an exciting message that inspires people to act?

I would love to explore this theme more. I don’t tend to tackle a same topic in a repeated way so it’s unlikely that I would do a project that involved mermaids and plastic bottles again, but I definitely do want to tackle the issues of waste and recycling further. I haven’t quite figured out how just yet, but there are a few social campaigns I’ve been brainstorming!! 

More information is available on Von Wong’s blog. The photos below show some of the scenes behind the lens.


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