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Why a government agency is spreading memes about dogs riding pigeons

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The US Consumer Product Safety Commission brings a delightfully weird approach to risk reduction

Image by Joseph Galbo/USCPSC

Soaring above a forest on a smoke detector “sky chariot,” a dog in wind goggles yells about the risks of portable generators. It is a deeply strange image, and it only gets stranger when you realize that it was tweeted by a government agency. But the dog is just one part of a delightfully weird social media strategy aimed at keeping people safe.

The account is helmed by Joseph Galbo, a social media specialist for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), who has been bringing a wonderful, bizarre exuberance to the job since he started in 2016. In a series of graphics targeting ATV safety, for example, a helmeted character named Ted rides his ATV along the Oregon trail, while fleeing from a Tyrannosaurus rex, and he goes on a trip through a nightmarish Colorado that’s populated by enormous, glowing bighorn sheep. “He goes on all these adventures, but he does it really safely,” Galbo says.

CPSC is the federal agency that’s responsible for keeping us safe from consumer products. “Everything from ATVs to toaster ovens,” Galbo says. He came to the job after four years as a pharmaceutical ad copywriter and a stint writing for a museum in New Jersey. “It was there that I saw how you can use fun to engage people with science and engage them with concepts that are complicated,” he says.

When he started at the CPSC, the agency’s social media presence was exactly what you’d expect from a government agency: pretty staid. Galbo wanted to change that to make sure the world knew to be on the lookout for safety hazards like, say, dangerous chairs. “When you’re a small federal agency trying to get the attention of every parent in America, if you just try to do it the normal way, you’re not going to be successful,” says Galbo, who wants to be clear that he’s speaking for himself and not on behalf of the CPSC.

The result turned out to be a social media strategy that intersperses grim public safety announcements with glowing chairs, flying toasters, and giant sheep. Thanks to a very cheap stock photo account, CPSC’s social media also features a recurring cast of characters: Ted the ATV driver, Potato the Dog, and that dog in wind goggles.

The dog, named Barks McWoofins, has a whole backstory. “McWoofins shows up for National Consumer Protection week, he shares his messages, and then he gives this long goodbye about the nature of safety before he rides off on a giant pigeon to retire to Hawaii,” Galbo explains.

The Verge spoke with Galbo about fidget spinners, explosions, and why to put a baby in a forcefield.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What do you hope your social media strategy will accomplish?

When I first sat down for my job interview, the director and deputy director told me that the expectation was that we were actually going to save lives with this Twitter feed. And I thought, “This sounds impossible.” That’s been the fun of it, the creative challenge. You get up every day, and you’re like, “Okay, yes. This is a purpose.”

A lot of people talk about public health communication, and they talk about behavior change. And for me, I’m trying to do something bigger than that. I want us to affect culture. Getting someone to change their smoke alarm batteries is fantastic, and that’s absolutely what our safety education mission is about. But when you’re a small brand trying to do such a big thing, you have to set your sights higher than that. I approach it every day and I say, “No one really cares about the Consumer Product Safety Commission. No one really knows who we are. What can I do that’s really going to make them care and that’s really going to change the culture and the conversation about safety in the home?”

And how do you approach getting people’s attention?

I came up with a two-pronged approach. There was going to be the serious messaging for our recalls and our press releases. Any of the regulatory work we do was going to have that professional government flavor to it. But then for the safety messaging, we were going to go totally bold. We were going to go super off-the-wall surrealist, whatever it takes to get this message out there. Bare-knuckle marketing, I guess you’d call it. I said, “Let’s do an experiment. Let’s test this out.”

So with baby safety month that year, the message was about keeping cords three feet away from your baby. We tried one set of graphics that was the usual stuff we had been doing — you could have a baby in a room with no cords around it, or the cords are just three feet away. And then for the other set of graphics, I put a baby in a force field, and we put a baby in space. It’s kind of fun because it invites people to create their own story about that character. And it just took off, and after a few months of doing that, I was able to show that when you do this in a way that’s bold and creative, it’s a lot of fun and people really take to it.

What is the best meme you’ve harnessed for safety messaging?

The fidget spinner meme. It feels like forever ago, but it was only a couple years ago when fidget spinners were an actual safety hazard to people. So it’s this kid in sunglasses and he’s dual wielding fidget spinners. And I wrote a poem that talked about when you’re on this quest for truth, it’s okay to be yourself, just don’t put fidget spinners in your mouth.

One of our most retweeted ones is our laundry pod messaging graphic. For that one, we created a fake activist group called Human People United Against Eating Laundry Pods. And the intro line there is: “A truth you’ve always known, a cause you can believe in.” Just taking the whole idea of what usually happens after some sort of public health crisis that is created by a product and then flipping the response totally on its head.

I love them all. I feel like they’re all my children, and I love my children equally. But those two are probably the top for me when I think back on the stuff that we’ve done in the past years.

You use a lot of recurring characters — Potato the Dog and Bob the Bear show up a lot — why?

Barks McWoofins was a fun character. We have a really cheap stock photo service we use — probably the cheapest you can find — and I search through it constantly for the diamonds in the rough. I found this stock photo of a dog riding in a basket wearing wind goggles, and it looked so incredible. Barks McWoofins became a retired fake spokesperson that came back into service for National Consumer Protection Week but was really cantankerous about it. If you go back and read the copy, McWoofins doesn’t even want to be there. And there’s this offscreen character named Chuck, and it turns out in the end that Chuck is a giant pigeon. It’s all about taking everybody’s expectations of what government social media is and just totally flipping it on its head.

Sometimes it feels like I’m almost creating fan literature or fan art for a nonexistent fan club of consumer product safety aficionados. And that partially just comes from my love of television and movies and great narrative stories, and I think that makes it fun for people sometimes. It’s just another layer that we can add in that keeps people coming back. And what’s really exciting is when you look at our metrics, what we’ve seen as far as our engagement and growing our followers, the proof that this actually works is all right there, which is really, really awesome.

How do you balance the serious hazards you’re talking about with the tone you use?

We walk a fine line. We’ve been doing this for almost two years, but it’s still something we talk about every day: what is the line between doing something that is fun and educational and will definitely get shared, versus being insensitive to the people and the families who have lost kids. Falling dressers is a great example. At least once every other month, sadly, a child dies from a falling dresser. So we have to get creative, and we have to do some messaging for people who have never thought about this before, while at the same time being respectful of the families that we work closely with to keep the message out there that you have to be anchoring the dressers to the wall.

We borrow a strategy that you’ll see insurance companies use a lot. Most insurance companies these days have two types of ads. They’ll have the very straightforward ad that is meant to make you trust the insurance company with the serious spokesperson, and then they’ll have a totally different ad where it’s just these bombastic, fun, ridiculous setups that are, again, meant to sell you insurance, but they’re coming at you from a totally different way.

Where do you look for inspiration for your posts?

In the beginning, we were definitely going for a “so bad it’s good” sort of appeal. And we’re kind of just running with that. There are some graphics where we’ve reached beyond so bad it’s good into like, “Oh wait, this is like actually good,” which is very exciting for me when we get that kind of feedback from people. It’s definitely a go for broke, whatever it takes social media strategy from a tiny agency trying to play out of its league.

I’m a big comic book fan. The storytelling I do and the visuals I use, there’s a lot of comic book influence in there. I was a copywriter, and I taught myself video editing, and I was a freelance video journalist for a little while. When I got here, I was like, “Oh my god. There’s no graphic designer. We need to do something.” And that’s when I started messing around in Photoshop. What I’ve since learned is that the outer glow kind of looks like neon, which is very in vogue these days. And we fell into that design aesthetic.

Are you the person behind the delightful flaming turkey videos or the fireworks demos?

No, the agency has actually been doing those for a very long time. I showed up and saw what they were doing, and I was like, “This is social media gold.” The fireworks demonstration, the turkey explosion, the Christmas tree burn, all of those things are just perfect for social media because they’re really powerful visuals. And the fact of the matter is that everybody likes to watch something blow up when it’s not in their homes. It’s a really powerful visual that conveys really easily how dangerous things can get when you’re not doing them appropriately.

Any take-home points you want people to walk away with?

If there was just one thing that we were to ask of people, it would just be to take some time to think about your safety and the safety of your family. Do you have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen? Do you know if your smoke alarms are working? These are the little things that you can think of every day that could end up saving your life. We have a lot of fun, but at the end of the day, this is about protecting people and keeping them safe and making sure they’re aware of what’s out there.