Getting city to pick it up

Mayor is searching for a catchy -- and effective -- anti-litter slogan

March 13, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

Anyone remember the Trash Bash jingle?

How about "Baltimore Sparkle?" Or Trash ball? Those rubber garbage cans embellished with "Believe"?

A stroll down memory lane, in Baltimore's case, is littered with failed cleanup initiatives.

As it is everywhere.

Ever since that lone tear rolled down the Indian's cheek in the famous 1970s commercial, national and local campaigns have used guilt, humor, bullying, goofy slogans, goofier mascots and celebrity endorsements in an attempt to get it through America's slovenly skull that littering is bad, garbage cans are good.

Yet chip bags, soda cans and chewed gum pile up on the street. And plastic bags blowing around are a constant reminder that the message has yet to sink in.

But Baltimore is determined to give the trash control thing another go, this time with a push by well-known neat freak Mayor Sheila Dixon. At the center will be a new campaign that officials want to be "nice," "simple," "direct," "inspiring" - and maybe even funny.

They also want it "to change the public's perception of littering."

Good luck, says public relations expert Roger Friskey.

"All you have to do is open your eyes to see we could make a few positive steps in the direction of collective fastidiousness," the University of Baltimore assistant professor says.

"I wish I had a clever slogan on the tip of my tongue."

Once the environmental movement picked up steam in the 1970s, civic leaders across the country - and abroad - began turning to slogans in hopes of tidying their streets. Keep America Beautiful's "Crying Indian" spot set the standard. It also drove home the near universal lesson of anti-litter campaigns: Clever doesn't necessarily lead to clean.

"I don't think," says Robert Wallace, Keep America Beautiful's vice president of communications, "there's ever been a campaign that's totally stopped it."

But that's not to say there haven't been some great campaigns.

Most notably, "Don't Mess With Texas," a gimmick so wildly popular, 20 years after its debut most folks don't even remember it was created to combat littering on state highways.

"That was amazing," Wallace says, "a great slogan that tapped into the local pride and what it meant to be a Texan."

Through the years "Don't Mess" included endorsements - on the radio and on TV - by the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Lance Armstrong and Erykah Badu. In each ad the star intones, "I wouldn't do it."

The campaign won a spot last year in Advertising Week's hall of fame. And yet, says Brenda Flores-Dollar, Texas' litter prevention program manager, "We still have a litter problem."

In Knoxville, Tenn., they've got "Don't Throw Down on K-town."

In Washington State they warn "Litter and It Will Hurt."

In Cincinnati - and they're quite proud of this one - they urge: "Don't Trash the 'Nati."

Linda Holterhoff, the executive director of Cincinnati Beautiful, knew that slogan had potential when she didn't get it and her board hated it.

"You just can't have a group of old people do this," she says, adding that their target audience was male litterbugs aged 15 to 32. "We would go out and talk to groups all the time about litter prevention. It came to our attention that we were preaching to the choir."

The focus group kids heard "Don't Trash the 'Nati" and "lit up like Christmas trees," Holterhoff says. "They loved it."

But once the catchy message hit billboards, urban radio stations and schools, did it have the young people suddenly remembering the existence of garbage cans?

"Um," Holterhoff says. "We think it might."

Even in Texas and Cincinnati where officials say the campaigns are effective, it's hard to know exactly how much so - if at all.

To measure change, Keep America Beautiful advocates the "litter index." Something less than scientific, this involves someone driving around town, eyeballing things, and then deciding how dirty they are on a scale of one to four. If things look better by the next drive-around, the campaign's declared a success.

Of course many of these programs have more in their anti-trash arsenal than a cute slogan.

In Knoxville, they've got something called "I Spy on Litter" where people who spot litterbugs can send anonymous emails to the city.

With the "Don't Trash Allentown" campaign in Pennsylvania, the city has handed out thousands of kits with brooms and garbage bags.

Infusing Washington State's "Litter and It Will Hurt" with some serious ouch, someone who drops a fast-food wrapper could face a $103 fine - $1,025 for a lit cigarette.

Quite a few Baltimore leaders have taken luckless shots at the litter predicament. It defies easy answers - as the paper-strewn streets and rubbish-clogged harbor testify.

Mayor Martin O'Malley distributed black rubber cans with his trademark "Believe" logo printed on the side. People loved them - so much so they didn't want to waste them on garbage.

His administration also found the slogan "Cleanup is Contagious" to be less than infectious.

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