‘Please don’t litter’ – a marketing success story

Back in the day (that is when I was much younger), littering was a notable problem in the United States. There were seemingly constant campaigns delivered under the ‘Keep America Beautiful’ organization banner. The crying American Indian “Iron Eyes Cody”: was prominent and is one of the most famous print and TV (from Marstellar) PSA’s (Public Service Ads) of all time. At the time it was all called…pollution.

Before those brilliant ad campaigns came out littering was something people did not think much about. Flicking your cigarette butt was even thought of as kind of cool. Someone else would surely clean up what you throw out of your car window.

The first thing this marketing success story accomplished was awareness. Awareness is always the first step in successfully changing a behavior. And the behavior did change as Keep America Beautiful (founded in 1953) reports that the actual count of overall litter has decreased by 61% since 1960 (see below). In the case of litter – simple awareness was tantamount to solving the problem. Beyond the print and TV ads, there were billboards, posters and rallies all designed to make people aware so that they would self-regulate.

Therefor the awareness was enhanced with a second element – the frequency and ubiquity put out by Keep America Beautiful.

A decrease of 61% over 53 years (1960-2013) is an incredibly impressive statistic. Even more so because in 2013 there were 135 million MORE people in the United States than there were in1960. More people should equal even more litter. But instead of staying flat with population and overall litter rising 75%, overall litter decreased 61% over the period. That’s a lot of litter that did not happen.

Today the fight is far from over with tens of billons of dollars annually being spent in combating litterbugs. Yet there’s not a current ongoing campaign asking people to not litter or pollute. And you see people litter and pollute every day and it’s both puzzling and aggravating to me. Personally I’d love for our team to work on a new ‘Don’t Litter’ campaign with the full knowledge that it would be big shoes to fill to approach the success of the original campaign.   Below is an excerpt from a study by the Shelton Group that I found interesting.

In Shelton Group’s 2013 Green Living Pulse™ study, “throwing trash out of the car window was the only environmentally related behavior that a majority of Americans (63 percent) would be very embarrassed to get caught doing.

People “get” this issue. It’s tangible. Hollywood makes movies about it (i.e., Wall-E). Children of the ’70s have the PSA image of the “crying Indian” and Woodsy Owl’s admonition “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” burned into our brains. “Dispose of your trash responsibly” has become one of our nation’s cultural norms.

According to Keep America Beautiful, the actual count of overall litter has decreased 61 percent since 1969. So what’s created this success? It’s taken 40 years of pushing multiple behavioral levers, including education and fines and making the desired behavior incredibly convenient. 

Children’s perceptions were influenced in the ’70s with well-executed PSAs (Woodsy is still around: His updated mantra is “Lend a hand — care for the land.”) and supplemental classroom curricula. Municipalities instituted fines for littering and began seriously investigating illegal dumping sites. Finally, curbside trash and recycling pick-up has become the norm. Green Living Pulse 2012 found that 60 percent of recyclers have access to curbside, mixed-bin recycling. If you make it easy, Americans are much more likely to participate.” 

Do you remember? Do you still litter?

About markkolier

Futurist, entrepreneur, left lane driver
This entry was posted in Advertising, Marketing stuff, Television advertising and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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