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Kai Ryssdal: Today is Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras if you’re in New Orleans. The parts of that city that bothered to open up after the Saints won the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago have shut back down because hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to celebrate every year. Among all the flying beads and frozen daiquiris, though, at least one person is going to be working. And at this very moment, he’s trying to change the way you and I think about Mardi Gras.
From New Orleans, reporter David Weinberg has more.
DAVID WEINBERG: Can one man, armed only with an iPhone and a Twitter account, change brand perception?
New Orleans marketing consultant Tom Martin is on a mission to find out.
Tom Martin: I made up the entire experiment while eating a Whopper in the parking lot of a Burger King. I was looking at, they were putting up at all the Mardi Gras stuff.
Martin wanted to see if he could change common perceptions of Mardi Gras, as a raucous celebration of public drunkenness and indecent exposure.
Before last year’s festivities, Martin sent out a survey to get a sense of how 180 of his Twitter followers viewed the holiday. Most associated Mardi Gras with words like “crazy” and “flashing,” words that didn’t reflect how Martin and his family observe Mardi Gras.
MARTIN: People here have always wanted to change the impression of Mardi Gras, but they just never been able to.
Over the next five days, Martin sent hundreds of tweets with posts and photographs depicting the family-friendly side of Mardi Gras. The images showed parents and their kids watching parades, hanging out at tail-gate parties, and playing in local parks. At the end, Martin sent a follow-up survey. He found more respondents associated Mardi Gras with words like “family,” “tailgating,” and “food.”
MARTIN: I call it a breadcrumb theory of marketing and that is if I drop the breadcrumbs the right way a reasonably logical individual is going to get to the end point that I want them to get to.
Martin is repeating the effort again this year but this time he’s contracted with about a dozen bloggers from around the country to come to New Orleans and tweet about their perceptions of Mardi Gras.
Among them is Taylor Davidson. Last Friday, he turned out for a parade in the residential uptown neighborhood. Despite the chilly weather, thousands of people lined up along Napoleon Avenue to see floats, marching bands and the always popular “Flying Elvi.”
Taylor Davidson: Like how cool is it to be a part of a group of a 100 guys dressed in full Elvis regalia on scooters.
Lifelong resident Sims Favaroux was also in attendance with his wife and daughter.
Kid: Throw me something, mister!
Sims Favaroux: I know we’re talking to radio, but if you look around it’s families, it’s kids. It is a family event first and foremost and secondarily there is some decadence. It’s just like saying Christmas is nothing but drunken office parties.
Some local businesses are looking to piggyback on Tom Martin’s wholesome images of Mardi Gras. The downtown Sheraton Hotel offered to put the bloggers up for free in exchange for a promotional tie in. And the McIlhenny Company, which makes Tabasco sauce, provided funding for this year’s efforts.
Jan Carroll is a spokeswoman for McIlhenny.
Jan Carroll: For us, we’re interested in changing perceptions about this city that we really do consider our home.
But first impressions die hard. Even after last year’s onslaught of family-friendly Tweets, nearly 60 percent of Tom Martin’s survey respondents still associated Mardi Gras with the word “crazy.”
In New Orleans, I’m David Weinberg for Marketplace.
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