Middlebury College Invents a Pushy Redhead to Ease Dishware Theft

Middlebury College

January 30, 2011

Middlebury College students may need a refresher course in mealtime etiquette.

After diners stole and trashed close to $50,000 worth of dishes, the college created its own YouTube character to attract students' attention and possibly save some cash (although with tuition and fees exceeding $52,000 a year, Middlebury could offset the loss by admitting one extra freshman next fall).

The video campaign, which began in October, features the fictional Aunt Des: a redheaded, acrylic-nailed caricature of a Greek-American New Jerseyite who's hell-bent on recovering the dishes.

The first of the three videos shows only the back of Des's head as she and Middle­bury's dining-services director, Matthew Biette, sit across a table from each other in a darkened room, à la The Godfather, as Mr. Biette describes the problem like a mob boss instructing one of his goons. The scene is in black and white, save for the color of Aunt Des's auburn hair and flaming red nails.

The videos "are very low budget," says Stephen Diehl, a Middlebury spokesman. "But we're trying to use some humor while at the same time getting the message across."

Mr. Diehl produced the videos, which star Maria Theresa Stadtmueller as Aunt Des. Ms. Stadtmueller, a college communications writer and former stand-up comedian, drew inspiration for the character from her real-life Aunt Despina.

"She always had the nails and a lot of bling and the big bouffant hair," she says. "It was bulletproof, basically."

Ms. Stadtmueller embraces the role in videos and live appearances—Aunt Des made a surprise visit to the library during exam week last fall to hand out cookies—but she also thinks the campaign is an effective way to start a dialogue about the dish issue.

Middlebury's video campaign grew to include other technologies, such as posters with a smartphone QR code that links to Aunt Des's videos, and Aunt Des's very own Facebook page.

College officials first tried more practical solutions, like allowing students to deposit dishes into a receptacle away from the cafeteria. Middlebury had to abandon that approach after student volunteers were bombarded with overflowing bins of dirty dishes.

Cafeteria shrinkage is a problem on most campuses, but the high price of Middlebury's pickle might be a result of the college's unique dining policies: Students are allowed to take food and dishware out of the cafeteria as they please, a privilege that Mr. Biette considers one of the "beauties of the college." So far, dining services hasn't considered discontinuing the system.

The campaign will expand this spring with life-size Aunt Des cardboard cutouts and a smartphone app that plays sound bites of her most memorable quotations (among them, one-liners about "sloppagees" and "zoons," words the original Despina used, that Ms. Stadtmueller says loosely translate to "slobs" and "animals").

The campaign may have sparked a conversation, but so far it hasn't changed the campus culture, aside from introducing a new campus icon. "I'd like to say the campaign has had an impact," says Mr. Biette, "but the quantity of dishes in the dish room is depleting at the same pace."