Farewell, torture ads. 'Don't litter' signs become gentler in Washington state
For 20 years, Washingtonians have been “threatened” by highway signs that say, “Litter and It Will Hurt. Report Violators 1-866-LITTER1.”
Of course, this is metaphorical -- your wallet will hurt because you’ll be fined up to $5,000. But the state alluded to physical pain, too: The signs were accompanied by a video ad campaign starring Torquemada, the 15th century cleric who tortured victims in the Spanish Inquisition.
Megan Warfield, of the state Department of Ecology, was the campaign’s creator. She said she was targeting the “typical littering audience,” which her research showed was young, male and truck-driving.
“We thought humor would be an effective way to reach that demographic," Warfield said. "We also heard from them that they didn’t really care about littering unless they thought they’d get caught.”
Some of Warfield’s Ecology Department colleagues opposed the Torquemada ads.
“Ecology staff are the more eco-conscious crowd,” she said. “They wanted a more ‘Keep Washington Green’ message, and we just really had to stand by the research that showed that that kind of messaging was not going to convince a hard-core litterer of anything.”
Warfield won that debate and she said after the jokey signs and ads went up, roadside littering dropped 25% in two years. So why is Ecology changing the campaign? Because they no longer think it’s funny.
Ecology’s new litter prevention leader, Amber Smith, said she liked the old campaign. But with police violence so fresh, a joke about Washington cops working with a sadist doesn’t fly.
“Law enforcement felt uncomfortable using a slogan insinuating they would hurt anyone,” Smith said.
Also problematic was the phone number for reporting violators: Were the callers acting out of prejudice? Do we want distracted drivers writing down numbers and making phone calls?
Anyway, Smith said, our state doesn’t have to invoke sadism; we can rely on the “positive culture framework” we already have. “In Washington, this is what we do, this is the social norm here: We don’t litter. We know from surveys that 70% to 80% of Washingtonians don’t litter. We have that social norm on our side.”
With that, I give you Washington State’s brand new anti-littering campaign. It’s positive, it’s optimistic, and it’s torture-free.
But will it work? Will a message of unity keep truckers and hardcore litterers from pitching their takeout containers? Will you stay clean without the threat of the Spanish Inquisition? We’ll find out. The new “We Keep WA Litter Free” signs are scheduled to go up in November.
Another one of the "litter and it will hurt" ads: