Herman, the FEMA hermit spokescrab for disaster response:
And the National Security Agency's CryptoKids, including Crypto Cat and Decipher Dog:
The new issue of the Washington Monthly has a story on these mascots, which were created in response to a 1997 memorandum from Bill Clinton, that includes a series of hilarious new details:
The main thing we learned is that any self-respecting site for kids must feature a cartoon mascot, preferably one from the animal kingdom. The CIA's page, for instance, employs a blue bear named Ginger, a mascot-cum-tour guide at Langley. ("Hi! My name is Ginger. That's short for Virginia, where my home is…I love walnuts, but I never thought you could hide a secret message in the empty shell." And so forth). But man-made objects can also fit the bill. Take the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) website, which created Stanley Stat, an animated graph who, along with his ambiguous love interest, Pie-Chart Pam, exhorts kids to learn more about, well, agricultural statistics. ("Do you know your Agricultural Statistics History?" inquires Stanley, staying admirably on-message). Indeed, the entire Department of Agriculture, which runs NASS, has a penchant for bringing the inanimate to life. "My favorite is Thermy," says USDA Web Director Kim Taylor, referring to Thermy the Thermometer, a mercurial fellow who comes complete with a polka dot pot-holder, puffy chef's hat, and digital temperature display in lieu of a mouth. "There are creative people, you know?"
Nevertheless, animation, while popular, should never be used lightly. As Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez explains, cartoon mascots set the tone for an entire kids' page. In the case of the DHS, that mascot would be Rex the mountain lion, a Freddie Mercury-like fellow in a sleeveless shirt who has the head of a feline and the body of a human weightlifter. It's up to Rex to be a role model to children who are planning for emergencies such as an act of terrorism ("Talk to your parents or teachers if you have questions about this type of emergency") and to interest them in preparedness exercises ("This fun game will help you remember what your family should pack in your emergency supply kit!"). And creating Rex took a lot of thought. "It had to be someone that was strong, and we wanted it to be family friendly," says Gonzalez. "We always describe Rex as being a strong family man who protects his wife, Purrcilla, and his daughter, Rory." Rex, in other words, is an animal version of Michael Chertoff, only competent.
By the same logic, names require close attention. They should fit the agency in question, and puns are a must. The Forest Service enjoys backing from one Woodsy Owl (a "whimsical fellow," claims the site bio), and the National Research Conservation Service's site offers S.K.Worm, the agency's "official annelid." (The "S.K." stands for "scientific knowledge," but the name is pronounced "Squirm"). But not all puns are created equal: They must undergo extensive audience testing. A 25-page USDA slogan study reveals that Thermy the Thermometer came by his moniker only after focus groups rejected "Tempy," "Chef Thurmond," "Hot Shot," "Thermo," and "Temperman."
In case you wanted to see the new mascots (I did), here they are:
And finally, S.K. Worm:
Speaking as a taxpayer, I'm glad to support these important websites. Leave no mascot behind!
Update 9/19 1:20 PM: One of my graduate student colleagues here at Duke points out that "[a]ny real discussion of government-generated cartoon characters starts with" Bert the Turtle, the star of a widely ridiculed 1951 civil defense film teaching kids to duck and cover in the event of nuclear attack.