Let the Chaste Times Roll at Mardi Gras

Tabasco Backs Social-Media Experiment to Tame Wild Image of Festival

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Here's a good test of social media's muscle: The re-branding of Mardi Gras in New Orleans as family-friendly entertainment.

That's a tough brief, for sure, but it's already attracted major brand and media backing from Louisiana pantry staple Tabasco and broadcaster Belo Corp.

Mardi Gras chart
"We want to show people that Mardi Gras can be clean and wholesome," said Jan Carroll, Tabasco's marketing director. "It doesn't have to be 'Girls Gone Wild.'"

To most of the country, of course, it is -- a vision of frat boys and party girls pouring into the French Quarter for a bacchanalia of booze, bare breasts and beads. Programs such as "Girls Gone Wild" and "Cops" have reinforced the image.

And that's long frustrated Tom Martin, president of local marketing firm Zehnder Communications (and a contributor to Ad Age's Small Agency Diary), who, like a lot of New Orleans residents, says the event ought to be better known for cultural and culinary aspects than for its debauchery. "As long as I've lived here, I've listened to people bitch and moan about how people around the country just don't get it," said the Texas-bred adman. "If you're going to whine, do something about it or shut up."

Last year, Mr. Martin tried to do just that.

Different view
He live-Tweeted Mardi Gras, emphasizing the more PG-rated aspects of the festival, such as the parades and the unique cuisine as experienced in the less rowdy Uptown area, where you're more likely to see live oak baring Spanish Moss than college girls baring it all. He tweeted photos of kids on ladders taking in the grandeur of it all, and he tapped a network of Twitter power users to spread the word.

And, while he had a relatively small audience, it seemed to work. A survey of 110 to 120 people who followed some of the tweets showed, for example, that the percentage of people who associated food with Mardi Gras jumped to 70% from 56%, while those that linked Mardi Gras to flashing declined to 36% from 57%.

So, naturally, Mr. Martin wondered what would happen if the experiment could be repeated on a larger scale, and he happened to do that wondering within earshot of executives at Belo, which owns New Orleans' WWL-TV. "I made some offhand comment, and they got excited and said they'd like to play along," he recalled.

Belo, with its 20 TV stations and related digital properties around the country, could offer two things Mr. Martin couldn't get on his own: sales and traffic for the project's hub, a website called MyMardiGrasExperience.com.

MARDI GRAS GONE MILD: Yes, there are clean ways to get beads.
MARDI GRAS GONE MILD: Yes, there are clean ways to get beads. Credit: Missy Martin
The site will host live video courtesy of Livestream's new Live Pack, a backpack-like device that allows for live-video streaming from a camcorder.

Emphasizing the positive
It will also feature live Twitter feeds from an army of embedded mommy, travel and food bloggers who will be in attendance. They'll spread out into the family-friendly areas and maybe hit a ball or two. Peter Shankman, founder of HARO and founder-CEO of The Geek Factory, will actually be stationed on a float during one of the parades.

The group's marching orders, Mr. Martin said, will be to focus on the positive aspects of Mardi Gras and tune out the debauchery.

That was appealing to Tabasco, which agreed to underwrite the entire project, and will have exclusive branding on the website. Ms. Carroll said that while the company certainly believes in the project's objectives, it was also eager to move its brand into social-media channels. "The online world is still a little new to us," she said. "We see it as an opportunity to expand the brand's reach with a subject that is near and dear to us."

Mr. Martin, too, was eager to record a case study of sorts: "Everybody talks about social media," he says. "This is a chance to really prove we get it."

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