Nationwide, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) puts the total cost of sewer problems caused by wipes, paper towels and feminine hygiene products in the billions of dollars. And with rags and wipes playing a role in as many as a third of sewer blockages in Albuquerque, the community’s Water Authority in 2017 identified the issue as a communications priority.
Enlisted as a spokes-character in the ensuing outreach campaign and TV commercial was Chuckie the Elephant, designed at the Water Authority’s behest by Florida-based animator Kevin Riley. The affable pachyderm has in past years instructed Albuquerque residents on the finer points of grease disposal (Cool It, Can It, Chuck It!) and water conservation.
“He’s been a pretty versatile mascot for us,” said David Morris, communications director for the Water Authority. “You may not look at him and immediately think ‘water’ or ‘sewer,’ but the image of him stuck in a sewer pipe or toilet is hard to forget.”
Morris says he originally conceived Chuckie while trying to think of funny things that could cause sewer blockages.
“We wanted to say you shouldn’t put grease down the drain for the same reason you wouldn’t put ‘insert funny object here’ down the drain, because it could get stuck and cause the sewer to back up,” Morris explained. “The funniest object I could think of was an elephant. A Steinway would be funny, too, but the facial expressions wouldn’t be as good. Thus was Chuckie born.”
Chuckie, who adorns billboards, refrigerator magnets and TV screens around Albuquerque, has been “borrowed” (with Water Authority permission, of course) for use by utilities in Texas and Georgia. The tusker, whose look was inspired by the Ren-and-Stimpy TV cartoon of the ‘90s, also took home a NACWA Public Information and Education Award in 2016. That was for his anti-FOG efforts in Albuquerque.
“We’re hoping he’ll bring home the hardware on the so-called ‘flushable’ wipes front as well,” said Morris. “In the new ad, he’s going down the toilet instead of a kitchen drain, so we braced for some controversy about using ‘bathroom humor,’ but so far I’ve received no viewer complaints.”
The Chuckie character did not undergo focus-group testing before the Water Authority debuted him in 2014. But Morris – who spent about 10 years working in the advertising industry – said he felt confident the elephant would grab viewers’ attention.
“For the grease messaging and the wipes messaging, we wanted to reach the largest possible audience, including kids – a lot of whom will remember Chuckie’s advice well into adulthood,” he said. “A funny, colorful cartoon seemed a natural way to do that, and also a way to simply and graphically illustrate sewer problems in a non-gross, non-technical way. I don’t have real-life footage of a sewer exploding, thank goodness, but in a cartoon you can make anything happen. Including flushing an elephant down the toilet.”
The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority serves about 210,000 customer accounts (about 650,000 residents) and is the largest water and wastewater utility in the state of New Mexico.
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