News Feature | June 30, 2015

In San Francisco, Sex Sells Water Conservation

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,


Can San Francisco make conservation sexy?

“It’s been said that sex sells when it comes to everything from cars to clothes, but can it actually change consumer behavior when it comes to something as, well, unsexy as water conservation? The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission seems to think so,” the Huffington Post recently reported.

The commission’s “Water Conservation is Smart and Sexy” campaign uses sexual phrases to rally people in favor of conservation in the drought-plagued region. Billboards, videos, social media ads, web pages, and posters on bus shelters include combinations of imagery, music and innuendo such as “make it a quickie,” “get paid for doing it,” “go full frontal,” “quick and easy,” and “short and steamy.”

The city says the media blitz has been successful, crediting the $300,000 campaign with “helping residents achieve among the lowest levels of water use in the state,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Tyrone Jue, spokesperson at the San Francisco commission, said the ads were meant to grab attention.

“This campaign worked,” he said, per CBS San Francisco. “We want to use [a] provocative theme to get people involved and engaged again.”

But observers are not so sure the campaign is responsible for water savings. Wesley Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University, explained why he is skeptical.

“Mass media campaigns, by and large, are ineffective at changing behavior,” he said, per The Atlantic’s City Lab. “The research is really consistent in showing that what you’ll get is raised awareness—and that’s about it.

Updating equipment is more likely to lead to water savings, he said.

“That’s where you’re going to see long-term, lasting change, rather than a short-term, immediate response you get from a billboard,” he said.

New rules announced by California Governor Jerry Brown in April order localities to cut water use. Utilities must cut usage between 8 percent and 36 percent by February 2016. Overall, "the governor is looking to cut urban water use by 25 percent by the end of next February. There are 411 urban water districts in California combined," KPCC reported.

For more stories about communicating the value of water, visit Water Online’s Consumer Outreach Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Fitness woman drink water," Marina Boyarkina © 2013, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: