Mr. Yuk turns fifty; still saving lives with grimacing green face and a warning

Digital Originals

(WHTM) — He’s still with us, and still saving lives. Mr. Yuk, the grimacing green face warning kids away from poisonous materials, turns fifty this year.

Back in 1971, Dr. Richard Moriarty, the director of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s new poison center, was trying to come up with a poison warning label that would actually work. At the time, the standard symbol for a hazardous product was a skull and crossbones, but studies showed the symbol could actually attract children that could associate it with pirates, swashbuckling adventure, and, particularly in the Pittsburgh area, major league baseball.

Realizing this was in a sense a public relations problem, Dr. Moriarty went to a public relations firm for help. They created a focus group of preschoolers and found out what the children knew about poison. The children, as it turned out, already knew the important basics-poison can make you sick, or kill you. They also showed the kids various faces, backed by different colors. The children went with a “sick face” against green as the scariest combination.

The Pittsburgh Poison Control Center then held a design contest for kids. The winner was Wendy Brown, a fourth-grader from West Virginia. Mr. Yuk got his name when a child looked at the design and pronounced it “Yucky.”

For a while, Mr. Yuk was a regional Pittsburgh thing. The University of Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital mailed out a few million stickers a year. Then in 1975 a commercial about the symbol aired during Super Bowl IX. Mr. Yuk hit the big time. By the end of the decade, the hospital was sending out fifty million stickers a year.

The phone number on the sticker, 1-800-222-1222, automatically connects you to the nearest poison control center in your area. Pennsylvania has two. One at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the other at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

So how effective is Mr. Yuk?

That’s hard to say. Other methods of protecting children, like child-proof bottle caps, have also come into common use over the last fifty years. And since people do not call into poison control centers to announce a child has not been poisoned, we’ll never know how many lives the little green sickface sticker saved. But a report published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2011 shows pediatric poisoning deaths dropped 84% between 1972 and 2008.

In addition to stickers and brochures, Mr. Yuk also has his own Twitter & Facebook pages, keeping people up to date about potential hazards both indoors and out.

If you would like to get a sheet of Mr. Yuk stickers (they’re free!), send a self-addressed stamped business size envelope to:

Mr. Yuk
Pittsburgh Poison Center
200 Lothrop Street
PFG 01-01-01
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

To see that original 1970s Mr. Yuk promo, click here

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