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!

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:

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:

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.