How a Government Bureaucrat Became the King of Internet Memes

A small federal agency tasked with running public awareness campaigns about securing dressers to the wall and correct ladder use has become known for something else: dank memes.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a small federal agency located outside the nation’s capital, doesn’t have the most glamorous mission.

The agency is tasked with regulating household products, office furniture, and other consumer goods to ensure that they are safe for consumers. This objective has also taken the form of public safety awareness campaigns about everything from securing dressers to the wall to keep them from toppling to advising on correct ladder use when changing a lightbulb.

More recently, however, the CPSC has become known for something else: dank memes.

The agency’s memes and surreal Photoshop jobs have captivated the internet. The CPSC’s tweet reacting to the Tide Pod craze racked up more than 3,500 retweets in a matter of hours, virality that prompted some  Twitter users to question whether the CPSC was even a real federal agency and not the side project of some dedicated troll.

The CPSC is, for the record, a real agency. Established in 1973 and has an annual budget of just around $120 million a year, making it one of the smaller federal agencies.

The agency has a staff of roughly 500 employees. The one behind the memes is 31-year-old social media specialist Joseph Galbo.

Galbo joined the agency in July 2016. Having previously worked in marketing at a nonprofit science museum in New Jersey, Galbo was excited about the CPSC’s mission of using scientific information to keep the public safe.

His task: to amplify that message on the internet and spread safety messages to the public.

“What we were doing before was all very straightforward,” Galbo told The Daily Beast. He and his teammates quickly met and hammered out a new marketing strategy.

“My teammates and I thought, what if we do something people haven’t seen from government before?” Galbo said. “We were like, what if we move toward a more meme aesthetic? It’s a more lighthearted approach and would still spread the message of safety.”

The CPSC’s first meme was born shortly thereafter. The image: a baby floating in a forcefield. The message: to make sure cords are three feet away from your baby at all times.

“People really took to it,” Galbo said.

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The public reaction was all the team needed to forge ahead. They began regularly creating content and memes around a plethora of safety issues. The agency now blasts out its creations several times a day via its social media accounts, which have a combined follower count of over 50,000.

Because Galbo creates the memes himself in Photoshop, the CPSC’s creations are look just bizarre and low-budget enough to feel native to the internet.

“I don’t have any graphic design experience, so this idea of taking stock photos and putting things on them and maybe a little glow on the text comes from my limitations as a graphic designer,” Galbo said.

It’s also what makes the content so charming.

As brands like Wendy’s, Denny’s, and Oreo spend countless hours and millions of dollars trying—and failing—to appear hip online, the CPSC’s overt low-budget aesthetic actually humanizes it. The memes look exactly like something a 31-year-old with no graphic design experience would produce—and therein lies their appeal.

Galbo said that part of the reason he thinks the memes have been so successful is because, at their core, they follow many of the bedrock principles of advertising.

“Ogilvy’s ads in the sixties had this thing of an image up top and text at the bottom that explains everything,” he said. “Ours are sort of similar.

“We do a lot of character building,” Galbo said. “When it’s time to talk about cold weather stuff we have Her Majesty the Snow Queen,” a character that was born after Galbo watched several episodes of The Crown.

“I was really taken by Claire Foy’s performance, and I thought, ‘how amazing would it be if she could promote cold weather safety?’” So he developed a “snow queen” character based off that. The CPSC also has a character named Ted who “goes on these crazy adventures on his ATV but he does it really safely.” Also, a sentient popcorn bag that talks about safe cooking.

Perhaps the CSPC’s most popular character, a regular in the agency’s memes, is Barks McWoofins, a small dog who rides around on a smoke alarm and talks about fire safety and CO2 poisoning.

On average, it only takes Galbo a few hours to complete a meme once the concept is finalized.

The first step, Galbo said, is to find a compelling stock photo for the backdrop. After that, he’ll pull various other images together, slap on some text, and present it to his boss, the acting director of the CPSC.

While sometimes it can take a bit of cajoling to get his superiors on board with a concept, Galbo said, they’ve been mostly supportive of his meme-based strategy.

“Internally, every time I present a new idea folks are a little skeptical but ultimately they’ve seen that we can do and they’ve embraced this unique approach,” Galbo said. “Since we started doing this we’ve seen a big uptick on retweets and followers.”

Galbo remains conscious of the fact thought that what’s hot or funny on the internet today may not always resonate a month from now, and he imagines that in the future the agency’s social media strategy may evolve.  

“When you look at what we’re doing, it works for this moment in time but we’re going to keep an eye out on what’s going on the internet,” Galbo said. “Maybe the stuff we’re doing a year from now will look very different, and that's the fun of it.”

Galbo said that while he does spend his fair share of time perusing social media and sites like Reddit and Imgur, his biggest source of inspiration is the creative work that other government entities like NASA are producing online.

“There are a few [government] accounts that I really look up to,” he said. “The Center for Disease Control shares amazing information on their [accounts]. NASA is doing amazing stuff, I wish we could be on that level. Ultimately we’re a very small team here though. It’s an office of ten people and I’m the social media guy.”

Hopefully, Galbo said, his work at the CPSC has opened people’s eyes to how wide a potentially boring message—replace the battery in your smoke detector—can spread online if it’s delivered in a funny and creative way—a weird smoke detector and a battery having a couples argument complete with a trending hashtag.

“I think what’s fun about memes is how unexpected they can be. Certainly there are design elements that are consistent but what’s really fun about them is you don’t know what the next one is going to be or where it’s going to come out of,” Galbo said.  

“Maybe ten years ago people thought that would be crazy to use memes to convey a serious message,” Galbo added, “but today they’re used all the time to communicate serious messages.”