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The Swim Reaper, an unlikely water safety ambassador and online sensation

The Problem

Fatal drownings are heavily skewed male and never more so for young males. Males aged 15-34 years make up 28 percent of all preventable drowning fatalities yet are 14 percent of the population.  In addition, they make up a high proportion of water related hospitalisations and injuries which also include concussions and spinal injuries.

Water Safety New Zealand has been addressing this issue for the past four summers, with the implementation of an innovative and effective social marketing campaign.

About young males

Young males predominantly live in the ‘here and now’ displaying experiential rather than strategic thought and behaviour when recreating around water. In addition, they generally have no consideration or intention to change their (risky) behaviour. And if pressed may even resist change.

While they may behaviour or be aware of inappropriate behaviour, the risks and benefits associated with the behaviour may be seen as equal so don’t see a need for change. However, at an extreme level if the risks outweigh the benefits, they may be prepared to modify their behaviour, on a case by case basis.

This poses interesting challenges for us as social marketers, to execute an effective behaviour change campaign when our audience may be resist to persuasion!

A Social Marketing campaign with a difference

Water Safety New Zealand has been on a mission over the past four years to improve the water survival and injury rate of young males through a social marketing campaign which uses the character of the Grim Reaper. Dubbed The Swim Reaper, this character has well and truly become an anti-hero and hard core influencer of water safety.

The Swim Reaper resonates with rather than tells young males how to behave around water. The campaign has been developed to strongly connect with the psyche of young New Zealanders and uses mechanisms of colloquial humour to deliver counter intuitive safety messages.

Campaign components

  • The Swim Reaper Character – the real deal, 6ft guy in a genuine Grim Reaper costume, scythe and all!
  • Sarcasm which invites comments and encourages engagement and sharing
  • Storytelling – our guy goes on journeys and tells us about it
  • Antics – the Swim Reaper does dumb stuff and lures people to follow him
  • Underlying message – swim dumb and you’re done!
  • Specific environments identified including rivers, waterfalls and beaches
  • Specific activities promoted from use of alcohol, wearing jeans in the water, rips, inflatables, jumping off waterfalls and generally doing silly things


  • A social media campaign predominantly, aligned with young male media habits, with precise targeting and little exposure beyond this target audience
  • The posting of messages are timed to coincide as close as possible with a water based activity
  • Messages are consciousness raising or provide water safety information in a covert way
  • Messages are highly environmental and activity focused and are geo-targeted to reach people in known hot spot locations
  • Posts demonstrate the consequences of risky behaviour and how that behaviour may impact the audience physically, emotional and/or socially

How do we know the campaign is working?

Creatively and from a media analytics perspective, the campaign has high awareness and cut-through. It is well received as measured by social media and mainstream media engagement and audience reach analysis. The question is though, is it impacting young males’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviour around water and is it bringing down the drowning toll?  

Monitoring and evaluation

  • In December 2018 we benchmarked the attitudes and behaviour of young men through an online survey
  • We also conducted a Face to Face survey on two popular beaches over the campaign period
  • We analysed drowning fatalities, hospitalisations and injuries over the past five years to include pre campaign and campaign analytics.

Online survey analysis (Dec 18/Feb 19)

  • 500 respondents split 250 pre and 250 post campaign
  • 34% said they behave well around water anyway
  • 53% were aware of the Swim Reaper when prompted
  • 20% said the Swim Reaper had impacted how they behaved around water

Face to Face survey (Dec 18/Jan 19)

  • 100 respondents at Auckland beaches
  • 44% aware of the Swim Reaper campaign
  • Respondents rated behaviours on a FUN to DUMB scale
  • Drinking alcohol, swimming and jumping into the water was rate as more FUN than DUMB
  • Boating in choppy water and speeding on a Jet Ski was rated more DUMB than FUN
  • Overall message take out was that The Swim Reaper is a water safety campaign and people should behave safely around water otherwise there are consquences
  • Those previously aware of the Swim Reaper campaign were more likely to respond positively and think about water safety. We can take from that, that consistent messages over time are beginning to have an impact on culture change

Data Insights

Five years of drowning fatalities, hospitalisations and ACC injury data were analysed. Among male New Zealand residents aged 15 – 34 years, drowning fatalities in natural waters over the past five summers have decreased since The Swim Reaper campaign has been in market. No decrease is evident when the preventable fatalities of young males born outside of New Zealand is analysed.


These insights shine a spot light on a number issues:

  • The campaign is resonating with New Zealand born or New Zealand resident young males. It’s doing its job for now and has impacted positively on the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of this cohort. How long this will last, not sure. Wearout factor needs to be considered among other things.
  • The campaign is not impacting on other young males – and because we’re seeing growth in immigration numbers for this cohort, a new strategy must now be considered.

In the summer of 2019/20, as far as we know, no New Zealand born or New Zealand resident young male has fatality drowned in New Zealand waters in a preventable incident. Sadly four fatalities have occurred all involving visitors from overseas.


The Swim Reaper Campaign

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