February 10, 2003
Sammy Safety leads the way as organizations discover the power of mascots
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—Methodist Rehabilitation Center has Sammy Safety, a 7-foot-tall 5-year-old with a howdy-there grin and a kid-friendly message about injury prevention.
Mississippi Blood Services has Buddy the Bloodhound, a cuddly canine who helps people feel all warm and fuzzy about giving blood.
And the Central Mississippi Regional Library System has A. Cornelius, a dapper squirrel who wants everyone to go nuts about reading.
In the competition for the public’s attention, the fur is flying, so to speak. Even penny-pinching non-profits and no-nonsense state agencies are delivering their message via mascot.
How did a marketing tool associated with sports stadiums and cheeky chicken restaurants suddenly become mainstream?
Because all the razzle dazzle can deliver some serious results, said Jim Albritton, director of public relations for Methodist Rehab. Since the hospital brought Sammy onboard in March 2001, he has shared his Think First safety message with more than 14,000 kids.
And they remember it, said Jamie McCullough, a counselor at Madison Upper Elementary. “I had lots of parents call me after Sammy’s program and say their child came home and said: “You have to buy me a bike helmet.”
When Sammy boogies into a school auditorium to the beat of *NSYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” you would think Justin Timberlake himself was in the house.
“The crowd went crazy,” McCullough said. “I got my children to write a paragraph about Sammy, and they all thought he was cool. They loved the fact he came out to *NSYNC. They want him back next year.”
That’s music to the ears of Lisa Uzzle Gates, who basically serves as Sammy’s agent. As special events manager and Think First coordinator for Methodist Rehab, her job is to get Sammy as much exposure as possible, whether it be riding in a convertible at the St. Paddy’s Day parade or checking kids for seat belt usage in a car pool line.
Luckily, mascot gigs aren’t hard to manufacture. In a nation where everyone knows Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, mascot love abounds.
But that’s not to say that every furry critter can ensure a following. “I’m sure the gutters are littered with bum mascots,” said Rick Looser, president and CEO of The Cirlot Agency in Jackson. “If your mascot is getting laughs and it wasn’t designed to, that’s a good indication you need to rethink what you did.”
Looser said when clients mention the desire for a mascot, he makes sure they know what they’re getting into. “We try to answer some hard practical questions that they may not have thought of. It’s like a swimming pool. Everyone wants one until you start talking about which part of the yard you’re going to give up and who is going to clean it.”
Looser said a primary question should be: Does a costume suit my business. “It’s hard to have one if you own a funeral home. The best reason to get a mascot is if you already have a plan for why you need it and how you’re going to use it before the first stitch of that uniform is designed.”
The Cirlot Agency recently helped the Central Mississippi Regional Library System launch A. Cornelius. And system director Kaileen Thieling assures that a lot of forethought went into the creation of the organization’s book-loving squirrel.
“We’ve been planning this for three years and through a grant we were able to make it a reality,” she said. “We have 180,000 people in our service area of Rankin, Scott, Simpson and Smith counties, but the number of citizens holding library cards was relatively low. We wanted something to increase our visibility, and we decided a mascot was the way to go.”
Thieling said the system opted for a squirrel because it was indigenous to the area and a lot cuter and cuddlier than a chicken. Indeed, Acorn, as he is affectionately called, may be the world’s most distinguished member of the rodent family. With his tapestry vest, reading glasses and pocket watch, he looks faintly professorial as he hands out coloring books from his acorn-shaped “nut case.”
“He has been worth his weight in gold,” Thieling said. “We’ve been to school open houses and accelerated reading kickoffs and we’ve lost count of how many children we’ve seen.”
Thieling has, however, kept count of the number of people requesting library cards and the number of news stories concerning Acorn. “In September, we did a major library sign-up campaign, and we hoped to sign up 2,600 new people. We signed up 2,792. And I would say our publicity has increased by 50 percent. Everyone wants to take a picture of Acorn. We are to the point now where people recognize Acorn and they think of the library.”
Buddy the Bloodhound also is enjoying plenty of name-recognition, due in part, to the contest that gave him his good-ole-Southern moniker. “We were just calling him a bloodhound the first year and half,” explained Dani Edmonson, manager of communications/public relations for Mississippi Blood Services. “Someone said he needed a name, so we did a contest. At least 12 kids picked the name Buddy.”
Those kids got prizes, but Mississippi Blood Services has been the real winner, Edmonson said. “At schools where we had blood drives pre-Buddy, we would collect maybe 20 or 30 pints. But when we went back with Buddy, we doubled our numbers. He has been a shining star.”
Recently, though, it appeared Buddy might have to be kenneled, a victim of a loss of outside funding to pay for the program. But Edmonson said BellSouth and the BellSouth Pioneers volunteer force have come to the rescue. “Now we are back on the Buddy bandwagon,” Edmonson said. “If someone wants us next week, we can be there.”
Adequate funding is key to a mascot program because costumes don’t come cheap. Most local businesses report paying $4,000 to $5,000 for a professionally made costume. Plus, there’s the expense of travel and accessories. Sammy, for example, has been known to sport a chef’s hat when talking about food safety or to ride through Methodist Rehab on his shiny red trike.
Albritton said he considers Sammy’s budget money well spent. “With a schedule rivaling a rock star or at least an American Idol contestant, Sammy is fast becoming one of the more recognizable figures in Mississippi,” Albritton said. “Because the Think First safety program is statewide, he has appeared on the coast, in Hattiesburg and all over central Mississippi. And his coworkers treat him just like any other employee -- he even has a badge and a desk. When you work with Sammy you begin to understand how a mouse built Walt Disney's kingdom.”
Looser agrees that a well-executed mascot program makes sense, especially if it generates media like Sammy has. “If you look at the cost of a well-made mascot versus what it costs for a one-time half-page ad in most large city newspapers, it doesn’t take a genius to see its worth. If you’ve got the resources to use it and the audience built in, it’s a good use of your money.”
That’s especially true if your audience is children, and your subject matter is something as tough to convey as environmental concerns. So several years ago, the state’s various Soil and Water Conservation Districts began using Sammy Soil as a way to keep kids interested.
Unlike a lot of today’s mascots, Sammy Soil is homemade. And the helpful home economist who did the job had her work cut out for her. “It’s hard to make a piece of soil loveable,” said Lynn Porter, an education specialist for the Hinds County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Still, the home economist did her best, fashioning Sammy out of a brown carpet-like material and giving him green yarn for his grass “hair” and wrap-around leaves for his feet. “Sammy gets called a baked potato and a tick,” Porter said. But like other more sophisticated mascots, he has his fans who wait patiently to be engulfed by his big white Mickey Mouse-style hands.
Porter thinks she knows why. “A lot of kids just need a hug. Even it’s from a dirt clod.”