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Litter Spotting

A new ad campaign hopes to get drivers to stop littering by getting up-close and personal with trash.

By May 2002Comments

THE TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION and ad agency Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia are getting down and dirty about trash in Texas. When I contacted each entity for information about littering, not only did they send me statistics and information about the state’s new litter campaign “If Your Mother Were Texas . . .,” but I received my own collection of homegrown Texas throwaways, fresh from the roadside. The new in-your-face approach raised my eyebrow as I stared at the cigarette butts, soda can top, and mustard-stained napkin in a very thin plastic sleeve that rested on my lap. All that trash was a little too close for comfort.

“We have tried to put the litter meaning back into ‘Don’t Mess With Texas,'” says the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign account director Valerie Davis, a principal at EnviroMedia. “It is not a tourism slogan. It is not a University of Texas slogan.”

That’s what the campaign wants: to make you uncomfortable about littering. Since 1995, there has been a 52 percent decrease in Texas highway litter; even so, about one billion scraps of waste will land on the state’s terrain this year. The old “Don’t Mess With Texas” ads featuring Texas celebrities like Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey worked when the litterbugs were pickup-driving Bubbas, males ages 18 to 34, but the demographic of chronic trash tossers has changed. Now males and females under 24 are the culprits. EnviroMedia and the Department of Transportation have labeled this new breed “Gen Litter.” Because a new sector of the population is littering, EnviroMedia has had to switch tactics in an attempt to change Gen Litter’s attitude. “They are very skeptical about advertising featuring a celebrity,” Davis says. “They really want to know that the celebrity has walked the talk. The people that they respect most are their families and friends. So let’s equate the act of littering to desecrating someone you love. You wouldn’t throw trash on your mother, so why in the world would you throw it on our beautiful state?”

EnviroMedia enlisted youth-marketing genius Sean Mullens to develop a campaign idea and direct the commercial spots. As he watched the old “Don’t Mess With Texas” ads, he felt there was something missing. The director then analyzed his own feelings toward litter and thought about the pride the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign instilled in Texans. “This tag line seems to have become this whole battle cry for a whole state and the whole idea that Texans are more proud of Texas than anywhere else,” the Californian says. “I just thought, ‘Well, put up or shut up.’ If you are so proud of your state, then how can you do something bad to it?” He thought about the love and the pride Texans have for their state, and he searched for metaphors that would illustrate those feelings. The closest, most universal parallels he could find were people like his mother, his daughter, and his grandfather. He thought about how degrading and humiliating it would be to watch their expressions as he dumped trash on them. Those were just the feelings he was trying to convey.

The power of Mullens’ idea is even stronger on film. In the first few moments of a thirty-second ad, the camera pans a Texas landscape with the lone figure of a tiny girl amid the prairie grasses. She stands solemnly as her long brown hair blows gently in the breeze. A man who looks like the strongman at the circus walks up to her as he munches on a hamburger. He finishes a bite and tosses the rest of his burger at the child, who has the same vacant stare and solemn look. The camera catches the red ketchup stain on her pink dress, freezing that image for a full ten seconds. “When you are in your car and you throw something out the window, you just keep driving at seventy-five miles per hour,” Mullens says. “You never even see the cup hit the ground, let alone have to go back and look at it in its environment and see how much damage it’s done to that beautiful space that was clean.”

The four TV spots use four different relationships (mother, girlfriend, daughter, and grandpa) and four different types of trash (a cup, cigarette butts, fast-food leftovers, and paper products) to target litterbugs. These categories of trash are the most popular forms of roadside waste. Non-alcoholic beverage containers like the soda cup make up 16 percent of all trash, according to a 2001 litter study. The same study cites tobacco trash at 19 percent, fast-food trash at 20 percent, and paper at 19 percent. All of this accumulates on the roadside—and there is little that can be done. “Texas can’t do a darn thing,” Davis says. “The state can’t defend itself.”

But Texans can. As the “If Your Mother Were Texas . . . ” campaign expands to billboards and radio, there will be little drivers can do to escape the message against littering. The old-but-true “Don’t Mess With Texas” slogan is a source of state pride that even a non-Texan director understands when he asks, “If you wouldn’t do it to them, then why would you do it to something else that you claim you love?”

That’s the question this campaign is throwing right into the laps of Texans across the state.

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