The EPA wants us to see zombies in a better light. It’s using some edgy YouTube videos to spread the word about LED bulbs.

“Margaret Harris is not the brightest of bulbs,” begins a prim narrator in a new YouTube video about lighting. Margaret smears makeup on her already ghoulish visage by the meager glow of her inferior LEDs. Then she walks out of her house, greeted by the horrified screams of her neighbors.

"Margaret" doesn't realize her poor quality LEDs make her look like a zombie.
Margaret doesn’t realize her poor quality LEDs make her look like a zombie, in “The Gallery of Dim Bulbs” video series from EPA.

The video goes on to illuminate the difference between good and bad LED bulbs. It’s one in a three-installment series produced by the EPA to educate consumers about selecting energy efficient lighting.

Yes, this edgy social-media marketing play came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Their goal is to differentiate Energy Star certified LED bulbs from unproven alternatives. Energy Star is a program of the EPA.

“Not all LED bulbs are the same,” says Jill Vohr, the Energy Star marketing director whose team developed the videos. “Some LEDs are going to give you the performance you expect, and some are not.”


Consumers, she says, buy lighting based on the technology — choosing LEDs over incandescent lights because they’re more efficient — but if the consumers are disappointed by bad LEDs they’ll be turned off from the technology, maybe forever. And, Ms. Vohr says, “that’s an energy efficiency opportunity lost.”

Sound familiar? Compact fluorescent lights are still recovering from the bad rep they got in their early days. Dim light and poor color rendering are also risks with LEDs. The EPA wants to avoid having the marketplace rush to judgment about LEDs as we did with CFLs.

To get ahead of the problem, EPA is doing more than producing shareable videos about dim-witted zombies. They’re certifying LED products that have passed rigorous third-party testing for light quality and distribution, color rendering, and other criteria. LEDs  that pass the tests earn the Energy Star label.

“We’re here to tell you how to make the LED choice easier,” Ms. Vohr says, “and that’s by looking for the Energy Star label, because ‘Energy Star’ means the bulb has passed all these tests.”

She admits consumers are incredibly hard to reach with this message. “You really have to hit them upside the head,” she says, “and that’s why we were thrilled with these concepts.”

I asked whether the zombie theme is a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for unthinking consumers grabbing the first LED bulb they see, but Jill Vohr insists not. The pop culture zombie meme might explain, though, why that’s the most popular of the three videos in social media.

In the second video, couch-potato Floyd (Margaret’s dim-witted husband) reaches for the remote control in the dark but grabs a detonator instead, destroying his TV. The third installment shows fortune teller Madame Helga misreading the palm of a client (Floyd, again).

When EPA chose these three from the many creative concepts (one reject had a guy mistaking a lobster for a seat cushion), the top creative criterion was the likelihood that the videos would be widely shared on the web.

Psychology, Ms. Vohr says, did not enter the creative discussion. Perhaps subconsciously, then, EPA wrote the three scenarios to appeal to broad audiences of consumers with slightly differing psychological drivers. After Margaret gets Energy Star LEDs for her vanity, she’s more attractive. Floyd’s choice of good quality LEDs makes him safer from accidental detonation.

By better light, Madame Helga’s fortune improves. Her tale adheres to the traditional story arc, too — she prevails over the bad light and emerges as the hero by finding Floyd’s missing sock.

“It’s not only the bad things that can happen when you pick the wrong bulb, but how your life can be turned around if you choose the right one,” Ms. Vohr says.

Every audience can identify with needing good light at certain times in their day-to-day lives. (Not many people are fortune tellers, but Madame Helga could be a chef.) Ms. Vohr says, “We were looking for stories that would connect with the consumer’s daily experience with how they use light.”

There’s another important audience for these videos: Manufacturers who aren’t submitting to the EPA’s voluntary Energy Star testing today.

“We’re trying to encourage vendors to manufacture consistently better LED blubs, as a way to encourage the successful market adoption of LEDs,” Ms. Vohr says. “We’re hoping consumers trust us and use our label as a decision vehicle and, therefore, more manufacturers will run their products through our testing and get our label.”

EPA is promoting the videos through social media and its partners, including manufacturers, retailers and utilities who have market reach. The videos were produced on a surprisingly modest budget, which leaves open the possibility of a sequel.

“If this does well we’d love to have more in the series,” Ms. Vohr says. But don’t expect the next series to be more edgy than this. “We are EPA after all. We’re very proud of this, but we had to jump through some hoops to get it done.”