The Provocateur Logo


Andrea McManus, ViTreo Group Inc
February 26th 2019

In honour of this past Valentine’s Day, or perhaps instead of it, an El Paso, Texas zoo launched a new marketing campaign, Quit Bugging Me!!! The initiative invited guests to name cockroaches after their ex-partners - the insects would then be fed to meerkats. The first names or initials of these ex-partners were then displayed around the meerkats enclosure and on social media. The event was streamed live on Facebook and on the zoo's "meerkat webcam”. The Bronx Zoo in New York and The Hemsley Conservation Centre in Kent, UK, are also inviting visitors to join in a similar campaign.

El Paso Zoo event organizer, Sarah Borrego, stated that the response was overwhelming, which may be an indication "that people are sick of Valentine's because it is so commercial.” She also indicated no complaints had yet been received, but there might be some backlash (BBC - Zoo's Valentine cockroach revenge for ex-lovers, 02/07/19). According to KUTV, “about a dozen people went to the viewing at the zoo, but 1,075 people watched live as they streamed the lunch date on the zoo's Facebook page. One young guest at the zoo said he thought it was ‘kind of rude, just a little, but funny.’ Interestingly, most of the names received were men’s. The event was free, but about $3,000 was donated to the zoo.” (KUTZ TV - Zoo releases names of cockroaches named after exes (KUTV) 02/12/19)

This campaign has gone viral and I’ve heard everything from “Yeah, I would consider it” to “Stop, please” to “A new low”. In fact, the idea met with such an overwhelming response - 6,000 entries worldwide - the zoo had to stop accepting submissions on February 10 (Texas zoo overwhelmed by vengeful Valentines who want cockroaches named after their exes (CBC) 2/14/19).

I’m wondering why PETA didn’t get involved 😀 What are your thoughts? Great idea? Bad idea? Imminent PR disaster?


Creativity and innovation are always essential to an outstanding marketing campaign especially in today’s fundraising marketplace, where money is tight and competition is high for donor funds. A well-run organization knows it needs to stand out, to differentiate itself from its competitors in this noisy world. As Seth Godin, author, uber marketing expert and former dotcom executive, points out in one of his earlier books, we must become the ‘purple cow’, we must become exceptional (Seth Godin Purple Cow 11/2009).

Along with being exceptional, we must also be discerning. I’m all for advocating that we need to stand out with our initiatives or suffer the consequences of going unnoticed. That’s a given. But when does attention-seeking cross the line? When does outrageous become nothing more than bad taste? Did this cockroach-eating meerkat campaign slither into territory astute fundraisers should stop far short of entering?

The $64,000 question - where should the line be drawn? Do we want to raise money at any cost? Some say there’s no bad publicity… not sure if the cockroaches and their namesakes would agree? It definitely created more media value and public awareness of the El Paso zoo. But what was the ‘good’ that came out of this? The Texas zoo’s CFO may have been rubbing his hands, but other than increasing its bottom line, what ‘benefit’ did this event create?


There’s been other outrageous fundraising initiatives - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for one, which raised $115 million in 2014, after the ‘organization only took in $2.5 million in all of 2013.’ How did the fundraising challenge get its start? How did it go viral, spreading across continents, without spending a dime on marketing or publicity? (Forbes Magazine The science behind the success of the ice bucket challenge Rick Smith 09/01/14)

“On 15 July a golfer in Florida, Charles Kennedy, was nominated by a friend to do an Ice Bucket Challenge. At the time, the challenge was not connected to a particular charity, but Mr. Kennedy decided that the money raised by his ice bucket challenge should go to ALS because his cousin suffered from the disease. He then nominated his cousin's wife to soak herself and urge others to take it on. It then reached the radar of another ALS sufferer, Pat Quinn from New York. The 31-year-old launched the campaign with the help of friend Pete Frates, a former Boston college basketball player who also suffers from the condition.”

- The Telegraph - How the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge started

And here’s a less well known fact – The ALS Society had already invested heavily in its digital capacity so when the challenge started to take off, they had the capacity to turn on a dime from their planned direct response program and focus on leveraging the phenomena of the challenge. One of the other significant benefits for the ALS Society was the level of attention paid by the media to the initiative as the idea spread. This cost the organization nothing and provided a huge uptick in an awareness of its cause.

Source:  CNN

Source: CNN


And then there’s Live Aid -

“The fact is that absolutely nothing in the history of entertainment - not Woodstock or any other mass event - comes anywhere close to matching Live Aid in scope, in numbers, in impact, or in the grandeur of its concept. In 1985, an estimated 1.5 billion viewers in 100 countries watched at least some part of the 16 hours’ worth of performances. When the final tally was in, Live Aid had raised a little over $245 million (that’s $585.5 million in today’s dollars) from every corner of the world.”

- Forbes Magazine - The science behind the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge Rick Smith 09/01/14

Now that was truly an outrageous idea!

In contrast to the Texas zoo fundraiser, these incredibly successful events delivered a different message to their audiences:

  1. The advantage of a big idea. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was watched by everyone, everywhere. It included celebrities, it was funny and the media loved it. 

  2. The power of empathy. People could see themselves easily as part of contributing to this worthwhile cause.

  3. The beauty of a simple idea. It was easy to understand and to do, so that made it more likely people would participate.

“Rather than depend on the precious few for validation, big, selfless, and simple ideas come with their own broadly based chorus of champions. This is how you get heard when everyone around you is shouting.”

(source: Forbes Magazine, The science behind the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, Rick Smith, 09/01/14)

Many other organizations have weighed in on why the Ice Bucket Challenge was so successful including Social Solutions.

People benefited from these ideas - those who had ALS and those suffering from starvation, as well as the people who participated.


Perhaps there was some momentary relief for the people who paid to name a cockroach after their former partners - a few minutes of laughter at someone else’s expense? And Valentine’s Day has become nothing more than an extremely profitable day for florists, restaurants, jewelry stores, etc., so I understand the protest against the overwhelming commercial aspect to the day. 

The questions I always suggest clients ask before embarking on a new strategy or initiative is - Why? Why are we doing this? Does it help us to achieve our goals? Does it move us closer to where we want to be? Does it align with our mission and values?

I’m interested in hearing what others think. Do you think it was clever marketing or not? Did it go too far? As long as the zoo was able to raise funds, I’m for it?

Would you have signed up? Anonymity guaranteed😀.

Check out ViTreo's Braintrust as we bring you additional insights into what is and what will be important in philanthropy through our Weekly News Recap and our Podcast.



Andrea McManus, Chair, Board of Directors, Partner
ViTreo Group Inc

Andrea McManus is a Partner with ViTreo with over 30 years’ experience in fund development, marketing, sponsorship and nonprofit management. A highly strategic thinker and change maker, Andrea has worked with organizations that span the nonprofit sector with particular focus on building long-term and sustainable capacity. 

Andrea McManusComment