In the bowels of the federal bureaucracy, in Cubicle 717-02 of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s headquarters in Bethesda, Md., the U.S. government’s experiment with memes is getting weird.
Joseph Galbo, 32, sits at this cube Mondays through Fridays with a stock photo subscription and a rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop. With these, he transforms banal government safety messaging into almost dadaist tableaus — if only the old dada artists had enjoyed access to ironic clip art.
Nearly three years after the agency hired him as its social media specialist, Galbo has turned the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Twitter and Instagram feeds into a universe of flying smoke alarms, malevolent washing machines and cartoon cats riding all-terrain vehicles toward oncoming trucks. The effect is very twisted, somewhat dark, and — when you think about it — somehow appropriate for an agency that exists to worry about how your favorite retail products might kill you and your loved ones.
“Someone once said to me, our memes are what you call wholesome memes,” Galbo said, and in his next breath proved he was fluent in the online vernacular. “Others look at this as just a government agency s--- posting. I don’t agree. S--- posting is all about intent, or putting things up they don’t believe in. This is straight-up earnest. It’s an outlandish way of communicating something important. It could save your life.”
Lives saved last year: somewhere between 0 and 800,000 — the latter the number of social media engagements for an agency that, before Galbo’s arrival, had all the online charisma of a surgeon general’s warning.
The experiment began on the second day of Baby Safety Month in 2016, when Galbo persuaded his boss to let him put an infant in a force field.
The agency’s Twitter feed hadn’t been entirely conventional until then. A horror GIF of an unsecured dresser crushing a dummy toddler had been put to good use, for example. But the image @USCPSC tweeted that Friday morning in September — a glowing baby inside what looked like the bubble from the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — was pure Galbo in its clip-art-meets-Photoshop-filter aesthetic, and its earnestly weird message: “Imagine a 3-foot force field around your baby. That’s how far away cords should be at all times.”
Force-field babies led to astronaut babies led to fire safety tips written on presidents’ faces and the first of many inspirational messages about smoke alarm batteries. Certain consumer products took on personalities. Portable generators became tentacled monsters. Windows got lonely. An ATV rider named Ted was invented, and Ted rode his ATV through the Cretaceous Period, the Oregon Trail and the void, demonstrating proper helmet usage throughout. By the end of 2018, @USCPSC had gone viral so often that it caught the attention of the New York Times.
“The way he makes his images is really unique, and the absurdity has an appeal,” said Elias Bruno, a 21-year-old YouTube host who is one of the agency’s 56,000 Twitter followers. “A lot of brand accounts use memes as a marketing strategy. How many promoted Wendy’s tweets have I seen cashing in on the latest meme? . . . A U.S. government agency doesn’t really need to market. He just makes his own thing.”
There is both less and more to Galbo’s strategy than is immediately apparent. His work is unique by necessity; government regulations forbid him from using copyrighted images found in the most popular mainstream memes, limiting him to what he can scrounge from basic iStock photos. And yet for a man who works in the medium of unicorns and sea turtles, Galbo has thought deeply about the history and philosophy of his art.
“I grew up as part of the DARE generation,” he said. “I forget what the DARE lion was called” — he was called Daren — “but it was a lion that would show up with a handful of meth, and you were supposed to take that seriously as a kid.” The government has been creating cartoon characters since at least World War II, when it commissioned a humorless Smokey Bear to admonish the public about forest-fire risk. As if in parody, Galbo’s characters are named haphazardly — Potato the dog, Dennis the unicorn, Bird Ben Franklin — and have passions as esoteric as reminding you to clean lint out of your dryer.
“A lot of [my] characters are taking what you’d expect to see of a government agency making and turning in on its head,” Galbo said. “A lot of government agencies take themselves very seriously, and for good reason. But when it comes to your communications, it’s got to be for people.”
So he sits at his cubicle on a rented floor of a gray office tower on the fringes of the District, doing his strange work far below the tumult of White House politics or even the safety commission’s occasional dramas, such as this month’s scandal over how it handled concerns about jogging strollers. He works with headphones on, and depending on the day and the meme, those headphones might be playing Jay-Z’s verse in “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” on an infinite loop while Galbo dreams of woodland animals battling faulty space heaters for the good of the American people.
Sometimes his dreams are dark.
“The more obvious a safety tip seems, the more people are going to shake their heads,” Galbo said. “I want to put something out there that’s going to get through that cynicism . . . something that shocks you out of your daze.”
On Instagram, Galbo hand-drew a comic strip about an ironically named “Safety Cat,” whose adventures in playground construction and joyriding always end one panel before an implied disaster. He abandoned humor altogether for an image last October of a baby sinking in a soapy bathtub. The caption reads, “They left me.”
“That’s stuff I want to do more often, actually,” Galbo said, and mentioned that when his agency isn’t trying to cram safety advice into the public consciousness, it is often working with people whose children and loved ones really were killed by everyday household objects. “I think we’ve gotten to a place that people expect us to have this fun messaging, which is great because when we do take a darker turn,” they will pay attention.
For now, @USCPSC is still the odd duck in the federal ecosystem. Most government social-media feeds consist of bland literal messaging, or occasional throwback cartoon characters such as the National Weather Service’s Owly Skywarn, whose idea of fun is asking his Twitter followers: “On this day in 1986, which city was impacted by a supercell thunderstorm that produced 4 tornadoes?”
Like the inspirational raccoon that starred in a tweet last July, Galbo believes habits can change. Late last year, a counterpart at National Park Service emailed him out of the blue, seeking insight into his “Twitter shenanigans.” He expects the meme culture he has implanted at the safety commission will — as good memes do — evolve and spread across the public sector.
Galbo, who happens to work at relatively small and benevolent arm of the federal government, sees this as all for the good. But in time, the same viral psychological mechanisms that Wendy’s uses to sell hamburgers could help other parts of government communicate with the governed. Even influence our behavior.
Or propagandize us? How might the Department of Defense deploy the techniques Galbo is developing? We didn’t have the heart to ask him. He just wants everyone to be safe. It remains to be seen whether his future of government memes brings us smoke-alarm rainbows or ATVs in hell.
Correction: This story initially stated that Galbo was the commission’s first social media specialist. The position actually existed before he was hired.