Can’t Argue With Success?

San Francisco uses “potty humor” to draw attention and build support for a multibillion-dollar clean-water infrastructure upgrade program.

Common wisdom has it that references to “poop” are counterproductive when it comes to building public awareness and support for clean-water initiatives.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is perhaps providing “the exception that proves the rule.” The city is about to invest billions of dollars to upgrade its aging sewer pipes and harden its treatment facilities against earthquakes.

As part of an effort to get the public on board, the city posted ads on buses with a “talking sewer” saying:

  • Your #2 is my #1.
  • Nobody deals with more crap than I do.
  • You can’t live a day without me.

The idea is to draw people into the process of planning the infrastructure upgrades. Tyrone Jue, the commission’s director of communications, told Atlantic Cities magazine, “Our belief is that when you have public support, you have a better outcome at the end of the road. “This campaign is about fostering interest and getting people talking about the sewer system in a way that they probably never talked about it before.”

One might argue that the commission would be better served by talking about the product of the sewer and treatment infrastructure (clean water), rather than the raw material (sewage). Instead, it appears the commission is using the “potty humor” to get people’s attention, after which they’ll be open to the clean-water messages.

The commission reports that when the ads began appearing, traffic on its Twitter account and Facebook page took off. As of late December, some 800 people had scheduled tours of the city’s clean-water plants. So, apparently the campaign is working. And anything that engages people in discussion of clean-water infrastructure as a priority furthers the aims of the Fire Chief Project:

  • Raise clean-water professionals to the status of the fire chief.
  • Make kids grow up wanting to be clean-water professionals.

What do you think of the San Francisco PUC’s approach to communication? Send your thoughts in an email to  


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