Jul 16, 2023

‘I want a BIG RAT’: The story behind the NYC sanitation department’s latest ad campaign

Published Mar 31, 2023


Published Mar 31, 2023


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The latest rodent celebrity to rock the Big Apple has no name, but totes a blue suitcase and a wistful expression in 3.5 million fliers mailed out to New Yorkers’ homes in the past few weeks.

"Send Rats Packing!" the city sanitation department flier reads, followed by a note about trash setout times changing on Saturday.

The city is pushing back trash bag setout times to 8 p.m. to reduce the amount of time they linger on sidewalks, in hopes that the limited hours curtail rats’ access to a potential food supply.

The flier's 4-inch-tall rat model immediately drew the attention of many New Yorkers.

"I cracked up as soon as I pulled that flyer [sic] out of my mailbox," one person tweeted.

Another tweeted that the rodent must need some rest and relaxation: "Hey, I’m sure they clamor for a break from the ‘rat race’ every now and then, just like us."

But why did the sanitation department decide to portray the detested rat in a more positive light for this flier?

In designing the $1 million outreach campaign, Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch wanted to "catch people's attention," said department spokesperson Joshua Goodman in an email.

Sanitation department spokesperson Joshua Goodman shares his notes from meetings about the size of the rat on the flier.

The first design featured a small rat, which apparently failed to please the boss.

"An early version went heavy on the specifics of the rules, with the rat as an aside, almost scurrying underfoot," Goodman said. "I can't tell you how many times over a period of a few weeks Commissioner Tisch came into my office with a simple order: ‘Make the rat bigger.’

Then a few days later…

‘No, bigger.’

And a few days after that: ‘Josh, there's too much green space here. I keep telling you: the rat. Make the rat bigger.’"

Tisch sent Goodman repeated texts "that simply say, ‘I want a BIG RAT.’"

Eventually the rat grew big enough to dominate the mailer, finally satisfying Tisch, Goodman said.

The sanitation department has embraced a cheeky approach to some of its social media and outreach campaigns.

TikTok videos the department created to celebrate its compost program feature a grinning, human-sized brown compost bin wearing glasses and dancing around City Hall.

The approach is intentional, and is meant to capture attention and make joy out of what can be unsavory or disgusting topics, Tisch said in a statement.

"We're making huge changes to the way New Yorkers interact with 24 million pounds of waste every day, and that means we need people's attention," Tisch said. "In our line of work, we can do that two ways: We can shock people with how gross it is, or we can delight them with how fun it is."

"As much as we want trash on everyone's minds, though, that's how much we want it off the streets, and that's what the change in setout times is all about," Tisch continued.

Goodman said the flier's memorable rat model will help New Yorkers remember the rule change while having a little fun with the idea of his spring break trip.

"We’re thrilled that so many people love the rat, and we hope he has a great time in Boca, Boston or wherever he's headed – as long as it isn't here," Goodman said, adding, "before you ask, I don't know what's in the suitcase."


Sophia Chang is a reporter on the NYC Accountability desk covering government policy, social structures and other issues that enable and complicate city life. Got a tip? Email [email protected] or Signal 347-688-7674.

Gothamist is funded by sponsors and member donations

Gothamist is funded by sponsors and member donations

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