Own Your Throne: Hamilton spent $40K teaching people how to use the toilet

The Own Your Throne campaign plunges people into the fight against the "unflushables" that threaten the city's sewage lines and features a trio of clever characters with names that could leave a person flushed.

Cartoon videos from campaign have reached 146K people on YouTube

The Own Your Throne campaign features three heroes who protect a toilet from unflushable materials such as floss or bandages. (City of Hamilton/YouTube)

The City of Hamilton spent about $40,000 to re-potty train residents.

Or, more specifically, to teach them what doesn't go down the toilet.

Launched in November 2018, the Own Your Throne campaign plunges people into the fight against the "unflushables" that threaten the city's sewage lines.

It features three cartoon heroes with clever names that could leave a person flushed — buck-toothed Sir Peeter, brave Richard the Turd with his helmet in the shape of a stinking popular emoji and the Duchess of Swirl, who wields a spiked weapon along with a posh accent.

The three medieval-themed videos may be built around bathroom humour, but it shares an important message, only the 3P's — pee, poo and toilet paper — should enter the Throne.

It's an effort that's reached nearly 150,000 people on YouTube and in the coming weeks the city will be sending out a survey to find out what worked and how future campaigns can continue to draw a large audience.

Meanwhile, people in Hamilton continue to flush things like bandages, cigarette butts and so-called "flushable wipes."

Those items may be small, but they can have a big impact on the sewage system and can cost the city significant amounts, according to Andrew Grice, director of Hamilton Water.

"They stay there for ever and they clump up. As they work their way through the system … it's like rolling a snowball, it just gets bigger and bigger … and ultimately it comes to a choke point which will either clog our infrastructure or could result in flooding."

Floss, tampon applicators and cotton balls are some of the villains featured in the campaign's videos. (City of Hamilton/YouTube)

Floss caused $5,000 in damage to pipes, tampon applicators caused 344 clogs and those cotton balls flooded 22 bathrooms, according to one of the videos, which casts them as the villains complete with evil chuckles.

The cost to the city can be even greater, said Grice, noting it doesn't take long for the city to "chew through a pump" when the wrong materials start building up. And those pumps can run anywhere from $100-500,000.

When you compare that price tag to the money spent of the campaign and the number of people it reached, Grice says he's confident the city is "getting really good value for our money."

The $40,000 sticker price was split between production costs, which included script writing, the voice overs and other costs incurred by Toronto-based eSolutionsGroup, who created the videos.

The other $20,000 covered promotional costs from buying ad space on buses, CHCH and in the Hamilton Spectator, to cutouts and three-foot-tall plush figures city staff took with them to Hamilton Bulldogs games and other public appearances. There was also an inflatable toilet.

The 146,000 views on YouTube so far is something Grice says the city sees as a success.

So how did the city settle on a series that seems like some sort of cross between Game of Thrones and the Loony Toons?

Grice credits Hamilton's outreach team and its "out-of-the-box thinkers" with finding a way to grab the public's attention without grossing people out.

"The challenge we face is, it's difficult to talk about this with real life imagery, because not everybody wants to look at that," he explained, adding pictures of human waste on city buses might not go over well.

Andrew Grice is the director of Hamilton Water. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

McMaster University marketing professor Marvin Ryder described the city's task as "almost impossible," not to mention "thankless."

"People don't pay an awful lot of attention to the sewer system," he added. "People don't like talking about using the bathroom for bodily functions."

For that reason he thinks embracing a slightly immature sense of humour was really their only option. He figures doing something serious with a sewage expert lecturing people would fall on deaf ears.

"I thought they were very clear and the humour was well done," he said after watching the videos.

Cartoons combating 'wilful ignorance'

Ryder noted the city is also up against marketing campaigns that call some products flushable even with the city says they're not. That's tough to fight, says Ryder.

"It's just so hard to get people to take anything but the shortest route possible to dispose of things."

While the videos are creative and funny, people have to decide to watch the videos online or click a link to learn more. For that reason Ryder worries the people who will end up hearing about the campaign will be the ones already aware of the proper way to use a toilet.

"[Some] people will still say 'I didn't know I couldn't put a gerbil down the toilet,' or whatever it happens to be," said the professor. "For whatever reason we almost choose wilful ignorance and it's hard to overcome that."

Marvin Ryder is a marketing and business professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. (McMaster University)

Ryder also said while the number of video views is impressive, the city needs to know whether those clicks are actually coming from their target area or somewhere else in the world. 

Most views coming from Canada

Grice said he's confident a "large chunk" of people who watched were from the Hamilton area. A city spokesperson said the analytics show the average views are 97.3 per cent from Canada across all three videos — though Jasmine Graham said it was not able to break that number down by city, so it's unclear how many came from Hamilton.

The videos also reached people in the United States and as far away as Australia, said Graham, adding she's a big fan of the Duchess of Swirl.

Ryder said some tax payers might see $40,000 spent on a sewage-focused campaign as a lot of public money going down the drain, but he said in the grand scheme of things, for a city the size of Hamilton, it's really just a drop in the bucket.

"I think this is very appropriate spending on their part."

It turns out other municipalities have caught a whiff of Own Your Throne. 

Grice says staff will be presenting at an upcoming conference for the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. The campaign was also recognized with a prestigious Golden Quill award.

The city says it will send out a survey in the next month or so to hear from residents and work on ways to improve future campaigns that could take on subjects such as fat, grease and oil, the other bane of sewage systems.

'I think we've done our job'

Some of the potential criticisms Grice says he's preparing for are that people might find the campaign too focused on being funny or that they feel the message it's trying to send is something that's common sense.

But, having witnessed the disgusting damage unflushables can cause firsthand, he's confident the city didn't flush tax payer's money down the toilet.

"It's a difficult thing to talk about so I think you have to break the ice somehow and if making it a little bit of a cartoon and a joke gets people talking … then I think we've done our job."