City campaign gets serious about trash

May 28, 1991|By Noam Neusner

Selling civil obedience is no easy task: Just ask the folks who invented "Trashball."

That was the ad campaign that preached a "new city game" -- tossing litter into a bin and keeping the streets clean. Back in 1974, when it began, the campaign won awards. People thought it was funny and cute. Neighborhoods even held "Trashball" tournaments.

But after 15 years, the slogan got stale. And the trash continued to pile up.

So Baltimore decided to get a new campaign. And this time, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wanted to get serious.

"Before we started, we realized that an advertising campaign, cute and clever though it might be, would not clean up a city," said James Kapplin, public information director for the city's Department of Public Works and head of the committee that reviewed proposals for the new campaign.

With 22 agencies vying for the one-year, $189,000 contract, the competition was bound to be fierce. There were reportedly some song-and-dance routines, but others took a more serious approach.

Emerging from the seven finalists was tiny Willett and Associates, located near Mount Vernon. Their slogan: "It's your Baltimore. Don't trash it."

Since late January, the slogan has been repeated in television advertisements by such local celebrities as Cal Ripken, Art Donovan, Wes Unseld, Ethel Ennis and Mayor Schmoke. And the city is in the process of putting yellow placards bearing the slogan on 5,000 trash cans around town.

"It was designed to lend itself to action, with a call to responsibility," said Jack Willett, who came up with the slogan.

Mr. Willett believes the "Trashball" campaign was deep in creativity, but soft on substance.

"The problem's just too serious to be a game anymore," he said. Talking about the problem, he thought, would make people think about picking up the trash.

So he made the new slogan direct and simple.

Making the slogan rhyme internally was a deliberate tactic: It sounds better in jingles. And he used "trash" as a verb, a grammatical impropriety, because it's descriptive.

"Using 'trash' as a verb was something everyone would understand," Mr. Willett said. "It also brings in the implication that what you're really doing is fouling your own nest."

Mr. Willett's associate, Bruce Innis, thought the slogan was fine, but he wanted to give the campaign some punch. He decided Baltimore's trash problem was rooted in how neighborhoods see themselves.

A cleaner neighborhood reflects a cleaner self-image. So Willett and Associates proposed, along with its slogan, hiring two "community coordinators" who would work with neighborhood organizations to clean up trash.

The idea, said Mr. Kapplin, was exactly what the city was looking for. "The simplicity of it was especially appealing," he said.

Measuring the campaign's success, however, will be difficult. No one really knows how much trash sits on city streets, and officials have never tracked how much garbage was kept off the streets by the "Trashball" campaign.

The Willett campaign, however, goes beyond just encouraging people not to litter, and its community clean-up projects have shown results.

Since late March, Willett's two city coordinators, Glenn Ross and Susan Balser, have coordinated cleanups with 47 different neighborhood organizations. The amount of garbage picked up ranged from 4 tons in Mount Holly to a massive 58 tons in Waverly.

So far, 400 tons of trash -- enough to cover a football field with a 3-foot-deep blanket of garbage -- have been picked up through cleanups led by the coordinators.

The anti-trash campaign is not the first in Baltimore to promote good civic behavior with more than a song.

When construction work began on the Jones Falls Expressway several years ago, a local advertising agency, Schnably, Evans, and McLaughlin, looked squarely at the problem: 95,000 commuters each day forced into two lanes of traffic -- in other words, one big headache every day for 2 1/2 years.

The firm decided to "tell it like it is" with a simple slogan: "JFX *#*! Driving you crazy for awhile."

But the tongue-in-cheek slogan was just one part of the campaign: The agency, working with city officials, designed several color-coded alternative routes into the city, and a commuter hot line was set up that received approximately 500,000 calls over the 2 1/2 years.

"Advertising alone cannot solve a major urban problem. It can only heighten awareness about that problem," said Stephen Kaiser, one of the organizers of the JFX campaign.

According to Mr. Kaiser, even out-of-towners used the alternative

routes to get downtown.

The JFX campaign depended on the good will of commuters to follow other routes. Similarly, the campaign against litter depends on the neighborhood cleanup efforts.

"Our goal is to have people come out themselves because the city can't afford to do it," said Mr. Ross, one of the community coordinators. "We don't take care of the problems for them."

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