Peretz Partensky

Why the city is putting toilet-humor ads on public buses, like "Your #2 is my #1" and "No one deals with more crap than I do."

Ah, San Francisco – the majestic Golden Gate Bridge! The charming North Beach cafes! The briny smell of the wastewater-treatment system churning through 80 million gallons of sewage a day!

Wait, when did that enter the tourist literature? Rather recently, actually: This fall, the city kicked off a curious campaign to make people fall in love with its sewage system. Central to the push are advertisements on public buses reading, "Your #2 is my #1," "No one deals with more crap than I do," and the slightly ominous-sounding, "You can't live a day without me."

One may be forgiven for assuming the mayor was deposed in a bloodless coup, only to be replaced by the plunger-waving head of the public-works department. But this fecaltastic campaign, which is costing the city $65,000, is really all about the democratic process. San Francisco is coming up on a multibillion-dollar upgrade of hundreds of miles of pipes, many that are roughly 100 years old, and several of its water facilities that are not seismically stable. The city's Public Utilities Commission is using these nose-curling ads to generate sewage fever—it hopes the public buzz will lure citizens into the retrofit's planning process.

"Our belief is that when you have public support, you have a better outcome at the end of the road," says Tyrone Jue, the commission's director of communications. "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."

What exactly do city managers hope to elicit from a bunch of novices whose biggest interaction with the sewage system is probably flushing a toilet? That's a little murky, but the marketing ploy is classic San Francisco, where "public participation knows no bounds," writes SF Weekly. The newspaper also quoted Jue giving this utopian vision of the future:

Rather than building walls around future sewage plants, which make people feel unwelcome, perhaps "we can open parts of it. We want people to be proud of the fact this is a sewage treatment plant. Most people just think there's a smell coming out of that plant. We want you to know what it is behind the walls that causes that smell."

Jue says the puns and jokes were developed in-house in a "team effort," and so far have been a "huge success." Traffic has jumped on the utilities commission's Twitter account and Facebook page – now at 7,000 followers and 4,340 "likes," respectively. And since the ads went up, 800 people have booked tours at a municipal wastewater-handling facility, filling the visiting schedule for several months out. "It's amazing. Who would want to go to a sewage-treatment plant?" Jue says. "Well, people do."

Locals are even snapping photos of themselves with the bus puns, he adds, proving that toilet humor will always be a hit. "People are taking selfies next to these ads, believe it or not."

Oh, believe it:

Top photo from a San Francisco sewage-plant tour courtesy of Peretz Partensky on Flickr. Selfies from SF Water, Power, Sewer on Facebook

About the Author

John Metcalfe
John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.

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