Matching a face with the cause (Editorial)

(Oct. 13, 2015) Whether it’s in sports, business or advocacy, the impact of a mascot has been demonstrated time and again.
From Smokey Bear to the Energizer Bunny, cartoonish characters used in marketing and messaging are inescapable in American culture.
Agriculture, to a lesser degree, is no different.
The Maryland Soybean Board’s Glycine Max character, for example, aims to teach elementary students about the role soybeans play in their everyday lives.
But when the non-profit organization Rare turned to the University of Delaware’s Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research to gauge how effective mascots can be in inspiring new behavior, center co-director Kent Messer was admittedly skeptical.
“Frankly, as an economist, I was skeptical that a smiley-faced, goofy-looking mascot could do anything to help the environment,” Messer said. “My children might want me to pay to have their pictures next to one in Times Square, but when it comes to adults giving up money for the sake of a mascot, that seemed unlikely.”
Participating students were placed into groups and given the roles of factory owners in a common area.
They made production decisions that earned them profits but resulted in byproducts that polluted a neighboring stream.
When participants chose to produce more, they earned more profit and created more pollution.
The game featured the opportunity to earn real money.
The more profit they earned in the game, the more they took home — on average $30 for the 90-minute experiment.
In the baseline group, participants saw only the water quality in their area that resulted from their decisions.
In other groups, participants saw both the results of their decisions and whether the water met or failed to meet a clean water goal.
Those groups also interacted with a mascot: either the Rare mascot Meloy Junior, a panther grouper fish from the Philippines, or the University of Delaware’s mascot, YoUDee.
The mascots silently interacted with the participants by either providing high fives and excitement or expressing disappointment and disapproval. 
When exposed to pride campaigns, participants significantly lowered their pollution.
The groups were eight times more likely to achieve the clean water goal compared to the baseline treatment.
The results suggest participants reduced pollution the most when the mascots expressed disappointment, similar to how Americans responded to Smokey crying.
Be it through cheer or fear, a mascot encompassing all of agriculture remains a tough — if not impossible — task.
But that’s where farmers — the real players in the game — come in.
Ongoing pride campaigns in agriculture, from Common Ground to American Farmland Trust’s No Farms No Food messaging, put farmers front and center, telling real stories about real people.
Even better than that, personal interactions make a more lasting impression.
On-farm experiences peak in October, when bus after bus of schoolchildren and families nationwide trod onto farms to pick pumpkins, navigate a corn maze, enjoy a fresh ice cream cone or any other of the activities farmers have come up with to show how food is grown.
Each one pulls people out of the bleachers and into the game in a small way to help them better understand what happens on a farm.
The chance to see it, touch it, smell it and ask about it is something they don’t soon forget.
Let’s make it count.