The Mid-Atlantic Prevent Balloon Litter Campaign!

Apr 26, 2023


MACO’s Mid-Atlantic Marine Debris Work Group’s Campaign to Prevent Balloon Litter

The Mid-Atlantic Prevent Balloon Litter campaign leverages National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program (MDP) and NOAA Office for Coastal Management investments in previous community based social marketing (CBSM) work to reduce balloon litter.  With a previous grant from the NOAA MDP, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program (CZM) Program and Clean Virginia Waterways partnered to conduct extensive research in Virginia to better understand who plans balloon release events—and, most importantly, why. This research informed the design of Joyful Send-Off, a CBSM campaign to reduce mass balloon releases at weddings. This pre-campaign research, conducted with OpinionWorks, was carefully comprehensive so that it not only informed the Joyful Send-off campaign strategy, but laid the foundation to expand implementation of CBSM to reduce balloon releases at other celebratory and memorial events. Accordingly, another goal of the project was to build capacity among partners in the Mid-Atlantic to develop and implement CBSM campaigns. So in June 2017, Virginia CZM funded a CBSM training with Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr for MARCO and other marine debris partners.

Following the success of this campaign and the CBSM training, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) was awarded a 2018 NOAA Marine Debris Prevention grant to enable broad-scale implementation of the Joyful Send-off campaign across the Mid-Atlantic.

Conducting Pre-CBSM Campaign Research is Critical

The first step in expanding the CBSM campaign targeting mass releases of balloons was to validate the earlier research, and determine if the key themes surrounding releases in Virginia were also attributable to balloon release behavior in the rest of the Mid-Atlantic. Since the Joyful Send-Off campaign focuses on wedding venues, MARCO partners worked with OpinionWorks to first conduct a survey of venue managers and event planners across the five states. They then conducted two virtual focus groups with venue managers drawn from the survey respondents. The findings of this initial research showed that mass balloon releases occurred at only 7% of wedding venues engaged in the study, indicating that the venue-based strategy from Joyful Send-Off was too narrow for the region. 

To better understand the broader public audience, an attitudinal survey was conducted in the Fall of 2019. Of the 1,120 interviews conducted in-person across the five MARCO states – through a combination of in-person interviewing on tablets at public events and online consumer panels –  results showed that 51% to 62% of the general public identified as having participated in a balloon release, with a high incidence of informal and private releases. The releases also were mostly celebratory in nature. Parallel to the Mid-Atlantic research, Virginia CZM contracted with Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, CBSM expert and author, for Master Coaching to insure the efficacy of a Mid-Atlantic Prevent Balloon Litter campaign. With the guidance of Dr. McKenzie-Mohr, MARCO partners pursued development of a campaign strategy focused on a one-to-many, social normative strategy emphasizing the use of balloon release alternatives during celebratory, memorial and other events to honor individuals and groups. The campaign reaches a variety of audiences well before they are involved in any type of balloon release events.

Testing Campaign Messaging and Imagery

Based on the need to reach a general public audience, partners from aquariums in the region were invited to collaborate on this project. To ensure that the diversity of the region was represented in the development of the campaign messaging, the aquarium partners engaged people within their local community programs to conduct an initial test of draft messages and imagery. Message and imagery combinations were also presented to ten participants from all five states (two per state) who were identified through earlier interviews to be frequent balloon releasers. The results of the message testing showed that seeing the impact on animals who have ingested or become entangled in balloons, along with alternative ways to celebrate, deeply moved and motivated participants in the study to stop participating in balloon releases and also to help prevent releases.

Designing the Campaign Strategy

Informed by this research, a Mid-Atlantic Prevent Balloon Litter campaign strategy took shape.  The Mid-Atlantic Prevent Balloon Litter campaign strategy uses CBSM tools and techniques proven to change behavior when they are implemented in concert with one another: 1) Persuasive Messaging, including posters which display balloon impacts and alternatives to be displayed by partners in publicly visible areas; 2) Visible Public Commitments, including pledge collection and a series of pledge decals as a reminder and prompt to follow through; and, 3) Social Diffusion/Social Norming, including a social media plan, a selfie station, and pro-bono ads in publications. 

Multimedia materials, previously produced by Virginia CZM and Clean Virginia Waterways with funding from the NOAA Office for Coastal Management, have also been leveraged for the campaign, including the website, which offers many “inspirational, colorful, litter-free ideas to celebrate, to remember and to honor” along with a pledge form to never release balloons, a new Teacher Kit, fact sheets, a Media Room, and animated videos in English and Spanish. Organizations from around the world have signed on as partners on the website, helping us spread the message beyond the Mid-Atlantic.

Launching the Mid-Atlantic Campaign

The campaign was officially launched at all three partner aquariums (Virginia Aquarium, National Aquarium, and New York Aquarium) on October 1, 2021. This was the first of two pilot phases, with a second pilot phase implemented in spring 2022. The pilot phases tested the campaign strategy – messaging and approach.  MARCO partners collaborated with the aquariums to help ensure that the campaign is implemented in a coordinated and consistent fashion. To facilitate engaging more partners in the campaign at additional public venues and events, a campaign exhibit kit was carefully designed to reflect the campaign CBSM strategy, including a pledging component and additional captivating, colorful material to engage the public and lead them through awareness of the impacts of balloon litter and the actions that they can take to help reduce balloon litter and its impacts. The aquariums and partners were asked to track and report on metrics of success, which will be reported at the conclusion of this grant.

Results Thus Far

In the end, the combined efforts of aquariums and MARCO partners led to over 100,000 conversations being held, and almost 1,800 pledges to not release balloons were signed. While the grant for this project officially closes April 30th, 2023, the aquariums and other project partners plan to continue the campaign in perpetuity, with the aquariums integrating it into their plastic pollution programs.

Balloon Litter Removal Results

Throughout the 5 years of this project, each state conducted monitoring of 1-mile beach segments to count and remove balloon litter along with other debris. To view these results and the quantities of other debris on a map, check out the layer on the MARCO Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal.

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