Why Philadelphia’s UnLitter Us Campaign (Or Any PSA) Won’t Work

McQuade: We won’t change attitudes about litter with feel-good campaigns. We’ll do it by yelling at litterbugs on the street!

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It’s not news that Philadelphia has a litter problem.

As I’ve noted before, this literally goes back centuries: “Filthy-dirty” has been a pejorative nickname for the city for ages. A 1989 book is even titled Filthy Dirty: A Social History of Unsanitary Philadelphia in the Late Nineteenth Century.




Cities are dirty, and in some ways they'll always be. But they don't have to be as dirty as ours. A few years ago I was traveling to Toronto for the first time, and almost every person who had been there shared the same opinion: "Oh, it's so clean." I figured this was a stupid American thing to say, until I got there and it really was clean! (In contrast to Victor Fiorillo's take on Montreal, I found that city dirty. It was heartwarming; I felt at home!) Maybe I missed Toronto's dirtier parts, or maybe Americans just aren't up to the cleanliness level of our neighbors to the north, but this gives me hope.

Perhaps this is a Sisyphean task, but I fully believe Philadelphia can become a cleaner city. I think one only need look at Center City to see that there's a chance: Compared to the surrounding blocks, the Center City District's teal-blue crew does a nice job keeping it clean. But this is a kludge to fix the litter problem: While the CCD is nice for downtown, there's no political capital to expand such a thing to the rest of the city (nor is that a pressing issue we should actually do). But I do think it's a sign of hope we can hold on to; the problem can be fixed in some way, even in the area of the city with the most people to drop their empty bags of potato chips on the ground.

Which brings us to the city's attempt to fight litter, the UnLitter Us public service announcement campaign. It originally started in 2010, and the ads generally looked like this:

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Lecturing poetry! That's what the kids like nowadays, right? I think Drake's next album is going to be spoken word.

If you've walked around the city at all recently, this series of PSAs didn't appear to do much to stop litter. But never fear! LevLane — "nearly 30 years of turning customers into your brand's best friends" — has retooled its UnLitter Us campaign. The company explains:

The UnLitter Us movement has been a steady presence throughout Philadelphia since it’s 2010 launch. In 2011, the program saw heightened visibility for the program message and strengthened partnerships in what we call the "UnLitter Us Network," a group of involved and prominent community groups and city organizations who are all working together toward the common goal of a litter-free city. In 2012, we continued to promote, integrate and socialize the program, engaging with residents at several points of contact. However, we realized that in order for the City to reach it’s litter-free potential, the UnLitter Us program would have to grow and evolve into a new, more actionable campaign.

Enter the 2013 UnLitter Us program, a time to celebrate, authenticate, galvanize and support. The 2013 UnLitter Us program approach focuses on two key areas: 1) Telling the stories of real Philadelphians and their efforts to clean and improve their neighborhoods and 2) informing and educating the citizenry on current City and partner programs that are impacting our City in positive ways.

Here's one of the images:

UnLitter Us - Clergyman/Baseball Umpire

There's a lot to like about this ad: It's well-designed — LevLane does really attractive work — it's way more direct than poetry telling you to litter less and it features a clergyman in a blue shirt that makes him look like a baseball umpire. (Dressing priests as football players would probably bring even more people back to the church!)

But there's still something missing, I think. "Philadelphia admirer"/activist Emaleigh Doley was tweeting about this yesterday with the UnLitter Us account.

She also linked to a a 2010 blog post about the original poetry campaign. The writer, Sara, describes an interaction with a litterbug where she yelled at a middle-aged man tossing garbage in a Fitler Square planter: "That's not a trash can, and littering makes YOU garbage."

Public service announcements tend to be feel-good things to make us think we're doing something to fix a problem. People didn't stop smoking because of Truth.com; they stopped smoking because societal attitudes toward cigarettes shifted. Drunk driving used to be an accepted part of life; it did not go down because E.T. told people to phone home. 40-plus years of anti-drug PSAs haven't really moved the needle on usage. And research has shown television PSAs are generally the most effective campaigns.

The new program gives me some hope: It's asking people to join up and stop littering. Public service announcements can be a part of a broader campaign, but there needs to be a shift in attitudes to make it really work. So am I telling you to start yelling at people who litter on the street? I am — so I don't have to do it! I prefer to do all my haranguing behind the safety of a keyboard.

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  • DTurner

    Can we pull a Bogota and have mimes reprimand people on the street who litter?

    Also, I think one of the major problems has been the large number of homeless in Center City who often litter, making it more acceptable for others to litter. Addressing this issue be actually providing adequate services for the homeless would probably help with this and the parks in front of the Free Library and former Family Court building which appear to have become overrun with homeless folks.

    • Jamie

      The homeless have nothing to do with the litter problem. It is a cultural issue plaguing a portion of the population who takes no ownership in their city neighborhood or street. If you go to our parks you see they are littered with candy wrappers, soda cans and chip bags. Kids need to be taught that their city is what they make it to be. If they want to live in a clean neighborhood they can, and they do, if they stop littering and pick up trash when they see it. Each piece of trash was put there by individuals and that is the only way it can be cleaned up. People need to teach their children that they are responsible and are in control of what happens around them. They need to tell their children that when they see someone litter, they need to pick it up themselves and ask that person not to litter in their neighborhood!

      • DTurner

        I agree that it is a broader cultural issue that people just seem to not care about the city, or even downright hate it, but I think it is hard to deny that the homeless do not play any role.

        • Jamie

          The homeless are drug addicts and have mental health problems…….

          • DTurner

            Yes, which is why they need assistance, for their good and the good of the city.

          • Jamie

            Agreed

      • Annmarie

        Good comment, Jamie. I would add that it is not just children and teens who litter. In fact, many adults teach their children that littering is the norm by their own bad behavior. In my Germantown neighborhood, people of all ages litter. I have repeatedly seen adults put whole trash bags and pizza boxes in the sewer outlets. I have repeatedly seen adults throw their McDonald’s trash out of their car windows. People toss almost anything – from mattresses to bags of dog excrement, from dead animals to human waste – into the empty lots on the block. This is a deep rooted cultural problem with socio-economic dimensions. I do believe it can be solved especially by education and action in the schools and neighborhoods. Children can learn not to litter. Without enforceable fines, many adults are a lost cause.

  • christine

    How about trash cans in neighborhoods? You really expect a child to go to the corner store, eat his snack and then carry it for blocks until he’s home and can throw it away. Disneyland does studies on how close together trash cans have to be so people don’t throw their trash on the groun. When I lived in Gray’s Ferry, I put a trash can out, and people used it! Then I got a ticket from clean sweeps. The block captain (who in my neighborhood is in elderly woman) has to request a wire receptacle, and then she is responsible to make sure no one throws househould trash in it. Could the simple solution be trash cans??????

    • Veillantif

      Considering how many times I see Philadelphians throw trash in the street within 3 or 4 yards of a trash can, I’d say that’s at best a minor solution.

    • Pee Bee

      not true. we have had at least 5 trash cans on our block and still just as dirty as it is now without the cans.

  • Myphillytown

    I read a study years ago, the first sign of that a neighborhood is on the way up or down, is the amount of visual litter. The amount of litter is a reflection of how people value their homes and properties.

  • Pee Bee

    Center City is cleaner than most Philly hoods cuz the businesses pay to have it cleaned every day. I clean my block weekly and most of my neighbors don’t. You can’t lead by example in Philly. Too ignorant here.

  • Bryan McGee

    I’ve stopped asking people on the street not to litter when I see it. People go into extreme defense mode when you criticize their “right” to litter and it’s nearly gotten out of hand numerous times.