How a crap campaign helped Surfers Against Sewage tackle pollution profiteering
18 August 2023
This article was written by Falmouth University lecturer and Head of Advertising, Dr Cui Su.
When Jake Smith, a Creative Advertising BA(Hons) graduate, came up with the idea to make a surfboard out of raw sewage collected from beaches near his hometown of Porthtowan, Cornwall, it wasn’t just a bizarre upcycle project. Dubbed ‘The Floater’, the surfboard became a powerful campaign object that helped the charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) to galvanise public pressure on the Government and water companies. Jake gives me all the disgusting details in a video call.
Late in 2022, an open brief was circulating internally around the office of London advertising agency Mr President, where Jake works as a creative. The brief was simple but ambitious: working to a budget of £10K, come up with an idea to make a positive impact on the world. “The day we got the brief I saw on ITV that there was a big sewage dump near my village in Porthtowan St Agnes,” Jake recalls. “I began to dig more into sewage pollution and I was surprised no other agency had done something in response. It’s been such a big thing.”
I struggled too, however, to think of any recent creative work or content that specifically tackled sewage in oceans. “It’s weird right?” Jake continued. “It affects so many things. I’ve had friends who got sick surfing in pollution.”
Jake is right about the primacy of sewage pollution in the minds of the British public. According to a recent YouGov poll of 2,112 adults across the UK, a whopping 82% have heard something about sewage discharges from media coverage (YouGov, 2023).
This is how creatives see the world: the first instinct, the itch, the impulse or whatever you want to call it, is to make something.
Where others might see an insurmountable and complex problem, Jake clearly saw an opportunity. Having taught young creatives for over a decade, I’m not at all surprised. This is how creatives see the world: the first instinct, the itch, the impulse or whatever you want to call it, is to make something.
When it came to making The Floater, Jake needed to look beyond the big brands to independent makers that were up for the unusual task. “I had no idea how surfboards were made or whether it would work. What we needed was a bold, crazy inventor and magician type person and that’s when we found Niall Jones.”
Product engineer Niall Jones is a Falmouth Sustainable Product Design BA(Hons) graduate and founder of Benthos Surf Co. In 2021, Niall made a prize-winning surfboard out of single use body boards that had been discarded by tourists. Needless to say, he loved the idea of The Floater and immediately said yes to the commission.
We probably didn’t need the hazmat suits, but it looked cool anyway. There was gunk everywhere. And it stank!
The way Jake describes it, collecting raw sewage to make into a surfboard sounds both fun and totally gross. In Feb 2023, right after another sewage overflow in St Agnes, Jake and Jones went to the beaches with a bucket, test tubes and hazmat suits/masks to collect what they needed. “We probably didn’t need the hazmat suits, but it looked cool anyway. There was gunk everywhere. And it stank!”
“We learnt to preserve poo, we had to store the sewage in Niall’s workshop for a month before using it with the resin. We confronted a lot of issues along the way. Niall wasn’t sure how the resin would react with the raw sewage water, so he was making it up as he went along too.”
A couple of months later, it was ready – the world’s first surfboard made out of raw sewage. Jake was even able to get 11x European surf champion Ben Skinner to agree to take the board on its first surf and feature in the campaign launch film.
When you say it’s a surfboard made of sewage, people immediately go “eww” - they get it straight away. You don’t have to explain much. It’s outrageous and unexpected.
Ask anyone who works in advertising and they will tell you that environmental campaigns are notoriously difficult. It is hard to not get ignored. Even harder to get people to care enough to take action. When I ask if he could explain the reasons behind the overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Floater, Jake says: “The idea is so simple, when you say it’s a surfboard made of sewage, people immediately go “eww” - they get it straight away. You don’t have to explain much. It’s outrageous and unexpected. People love the sea and this was a fun and visually striking thing that represents sticking up for yourself.”
It was this audience reaction and energy that gave SAS the boost it needed for its ‘Dirty Money’ petition. After its official launch at the paddle out protest in Brighton, The Floater toured around the UK’s top beaches for SAS’s sewage pollution protest events, helping the petition gain over 170K signatures and ultimately secure a date for parlimentary debate.