7 Things We Learned From Bob Burns, the TSA's Hilarious Social Media Guru

Courtesy of Bob Burns
Courtesy of Bob Burns

Fans of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) social media pages—particularly its Instagram account, which has more than 820,000 followers—know and love Bob Burns’s wit, even if they don’t know his name. The airport screener-turned-social media maven began engaging travelers around the world with his laugh-out-loud content on the organization's official blog, which launched in 2008. Five years later, in 2013, the TSA's Instagram debuted. Within one week, Burns's hilarious captions and bizarre pictures of "crazy things people attempted to bring through the TSA checkpoint,” as he put it in a recent interview, had attracted the notice of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.

Today, Burns is the TSA’s social media lead, which means he’s the one posting the photos and coming up with the captions that regularly make you chuckle. In less than five years, the account has gained more than 800,000 followers, one-upped Beyoncé, and helped countless airline passengers stay safe and prepared while traveling.

In a Facebook Live interview on Monday, December 18, Burns shared some of his favorite airport anecdotes, offered advice on how to build a social media following, and busted some common myths about his organization.

1. BURNS BECAME INSTA-FAMOUS BY POSTING "INTERESTING CONTENT," BUT SHOCK VALUE DIDN'T HURT.

Burns, who initially began his career with the TSA in 2002 as a screener, “never would’ve guessed in a million years that my job would lead me to being a social media specialist for a governmental organization,” he said. With no official training in social media, he attributed his success to shock value, stating that “People don’t come to a government Instagram account and expect to see humor." The TSA’s international reach and, above all, strong content have also helped the account develop a dedicated following.

Burns advises aspiring social media mavens to “make your content interesting. Choose pictures that are going to get people's reaction and make them comment, and don’t just post because you feel like you have to post something.”

2. TSA OFFICERS DON’T TAKE (OR POST) THE TSA’S INSTAGRAM PHOTOS.

“Some people think we have our officers taking pictures and just posting them to Instagram, which is not the case,” Burns said. “I can’t imagine the kinds of things we’d see if we did that. I have access to all the incident reports, so I can kind of cherry-pick the best pictures and share the best content.”

3. THE CARRY-ON ITEMS AREN’T FAKE, EITHER.

"Some people will actually wonder, ‘Was this a test? Were you testing your employees?’” Burns said. “No, we don’t post those kinds of things on our Instagram account. Everything we post is actually something that someone tried to bring on a plane.”

4. A LIFE-SIZED FAKE CORPSE AND A SANDWICH SLICER ARE JUST TWO OF THE STRANGER ITEMS PEOPLE HAVE TRIED TO GET PAST AIRPORT SECURITY.

When asked about his favorite checkpoint mishaps, Burns recalled the time someone tried to bring a sandwich slicer through security, “like the one you see in a deli,” Burns said. “It’s got the huge blade on it that spins around and cuts super thin slices of roast beef. “

Another time, someone tried to bring a movie prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre onto a plane. “This guy’s going around the airport with this life-size corpse in a wheelchair, wheeling it around the airport,” Burns recalled.

5. PEOPLE REGULARLY BRING GUNS AND KNIVES THROUGH SECURITY.

“Knives are always a daily occurrence,” Burns said. “Firearms are pretty much almost always a daily occurrence.”

The TSA finds around 70 guns per week in carry-on bags, “and the majority of those are loaded,” Burns says. "The main reason is, ‘I forgot it was there.’ My favorite [excuse was when] someone blamed it on their mom ... ‘My mom put it in my bag.' It’s like, ‘What kind of mother do you have?!’"

Burns suspects that some travelers “might think if they have a conceal and carry permit, that allows them to bring it on the plane, which is not the case,” he explained. “No firearms whatsoever. But you can travel with them in checked baggage, as long as you follow our procedures, which you can find at tsa.gov.”

6. THE TSA DOESN’T CONFISCATE BIZARRE ITEMS.

Contrary to popular belief, “we don’t confiscate anything,” Burns said. “We give travelers options. If you have time, you can take it out to your car. You could actually put it in your checked bag and have it shipped to you. If you have somebody waiting for you, you can take it out to them and they can get it to you at a later date. We give everyone all the options we can to allow them to keep the item as long as it’s not a firearm.”

And yes, that includes the sandwich slicer. “We try to let you keep your sandwich slicer,” Burns added. “We know you need to slice your meat."

7. AT LEAST ONE PERSON ACCIDENTALLY PACKED A PET.

One time, officers opened up a checked bag and “a Chihuahua popped out,” Burns said. “Imagine the officer’s face when that happened. But it turns out the Chihuahua happened to just crawl into the bag when the woman was packing. She didn’t know, and she zipped up the bag and it wasn’t a carry-on bag, it was a checked bag.”

The Chihuahua incident was immortalized on the TSA’s Instagram page. (Not surprisingly, the dog was “not happy” in the photo, Burns said.)

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

7 International Names for American Products

Maksym Kozlenko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Maksym Kozlenko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

While available around the world, American products aren't always called by their red-white-and-blue names. Companies have to adapt to various languages and cultures, and what works stateside doesn't always translate. Here are seven American goods with unfamiliar international names.

1. Hungry Jack's (Burger King in Australia)

A Hungry Jack's drive thru sign
A Hungry Jacks sign in Bathurst, New South Wales

In 1971, Jack Cowin bought the Australian franchise for Burger King from Pillsbury Company (which owned the chain at the time). But because the name was already registered in Australia, he used the name Hungry Jack—originally an American pancake mix—instead. In 1999, Burger King began opening restaurants under its own name in Australia, but they combined with Hungry Jack's in 2003.

2. Doritos Cool American (Doritos Cool Ranch in Europe)

Cool American Doritos on a shelf
Cool American Doritos in Iceland
Funky Tee, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Cool Ranch is one of the most popular Doritos flavors in the United States. However, in many parts of Europe, the flavor is known as Cool American because Europeans often call Ranch sauce "American" sauce. Very cool, indeed.

3. Coca-Cola Light (Diet Coke in Europe)

Diet Coke is called "Coca-Cola Light" throughout Europe. The soft drink is exactly the same as its American counterpart, but the word light is associated more with lower-calorie items in Europe than diet.

4. TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in Ireland)

A TK Maxx in London
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for TK Maxx

The American department store TJ Maxx is known as TK Maxx in Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom as well as in Australia and parts of Europe. Its parent company, TJX Companies, re-named it so Irish and British customers wouldn't confuse the store with the established retailer TJ Hughes, which is quite popular in the UK.

5. Kraft Dinner (Kraft Macaroni & Cheese in Canada)

Boxes of Kraft Dinner wrapped in plastic
Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Canada, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is known as Kraft Dinner or simply KD. Kraft introduced the product as Kraft Dinner in both Canada and the United States in 1937. However, in the late '50s, Kraft added the words macaroni & cheese to its packaging of Kraft Dinner when the term gained more prominence. It wasn't until the '70s that Kraft Canada started using bilingual labeling (French and English) on all of its packaging. As a result, Canadian Kraft products included the words Kraft Dinner in a bigger and bolder font on one side of the box with Díner Kraft on the other side. The words macaroni & cheese were in a smaller font, so Canadians adopted it as merely Kraft Dinner. (Americans can buy a box of the Canadian version for themselves on Amazon.)

6. Meister Proper (Mr. Clean in Germany)

Bottles of Meister Proper on store shelves
Alf van Beem, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
 

Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean is a global product, so its name has been translated into various languages, including Maestro Limpio in Mexico, Monsieur Propre in France, and Meister Proper in Germany. It’s the same product—with the same sailor mascot—as you can find in the United States.

7. Walkers Potato Crisps (Lay's Potato Chips in the UK)

Walkers potato chips on a shelf
Ben Babcock, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Founded in 1948, Walkers quickly became the United Kingdom’s leading potato crisps snack food company. However, Pepsi acquired Walkers and re-branded it with the Lay’s logo and products in 1989. The snack food is exactly the same, but PepsiCo decided to keep the Walkers name to ensure customer brand loyalty in the United Kingdom. Walkers also has more exotic flavors than its American counterpart, including American Cheeseburger, Lamb & Mint, and South African Sweet Chutney. Adventurous Americans can get some of them, including Prawn Cocktail, Tomato Ketchup, and Worcester Sauce as well as a variety of different meat flavors on Amazon.

A version of this article first ran in 2016.

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