In the early twentieth century, car manufacturer Henry Ford is famously said to have proclaimed, “You can have any colour model T as long as it’s black”. Since then, however, personalisation has become the name of the game, and audiences get divided into smaller and smaller segments. Whether you’re a steampunk loving vegan or consider yourself the proud parent of furbabies, companies recognise the power of tapping into our specific likes, our hopes, our desires, and our aspirations.

It’s why advertising works … even if we swear it doesn’t affect us personally. Brands sell us who we think we are, or who we want to be. They make it all about us: how wearing their t-shirts can reflect our values or drinking their beverage can give us the energy needed to get through the workday. They make us want to associate with certain brands, marking us out as members of a tribe who proudly show our allegiance by plastering their logo across our clothing, our cars, and our meals.

The rise of the influencer phenomenon on social media can be seen as taking this to its logical extreme, with brands paying someone to wear or use the product to sell even more of a particular widget or whatsit. This has become yet another tool in the arsenal of advertising, joining print media, radio, television, billboards, the sides of buses, and of course online ads and emails in a never-ending stream of messages that compete to reach our eyeballs, our attention, and our wallets.

What does all of this have to do with litter?

With litter, all we have to identify the culprits is the rubbish they leave behind. We know the customers of those particular types of products—and those particular brands—are the ones who are making the choice to litter.

Yet a common issue that I see in anti-litter campaigns is preaching to the already converted, with campaigns built around messaging, motivations, and images that appeal to those who are unlikely to litter in the first place. By trying to cast too wide a net and appeal to everyone, it catches no one.

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen, and something I’m guilty of myself, is getting trapped by cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are defined as “systematic patterns of deviation from the norm or rationality in judgment”. In other words, these are programmed shortcuts in the brain that can regularly cause us to make errors in our thinking and how we evaluate things.

Dozens upon dozens of these biases have been identified. You may have heard of the confirmation bias, which is when you only pay attention to evidence that confirms an existing viewpoint and ignore evidence that may refute a preconceived notion. A bias that I fall prey to again and again is the planning fallacy, which is the tendency to underestimate task-completion times (hence the reason it’s taken me over a year to launch Reduce Your Wasteline … and I’ve only managed to put together the homepage so far!).

Another common cognitive bias that we are less aware of acting on is the false consensus bias. This is the idea that most other people will think and behave in a similar way to us. Which makes perfect sense as a shortcut for the brain because most of the people we regularly spend time with, such as family and friends, do think and behave in a similar way. 

This is why one of the most common things people say to me at a litter pick is “I just don’t understand why people litter!” Of course they don’t: people who don’t litter can’t imagine what it’s like to be someone who does.

Yet I argue this is something that we must do if we are to have any hopes of stemming the flood of rubbish that threatens to engulf the country as the pandemic recedes. In particular, we must engage in perspective taking. Unlike empathy, which has an emotional component, the act of perspective taking is just as it sounds: taking stock of a situation from someone else’s perspective.

What if someone isn’t motivated by a positive environmental message or the deaths of millions of rodents? What if their motivation tends to be self interest? Or a desire for a clean car? Or simply to move on with their life as quickly as possible? How do we reach them?

Ancient mathematician Archimedes is famed for saying, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

If we genuinely want to stop litter at its source—with those who drop rubbish in the first place—we must take a step back. We must remember that a campaign or intervention is not about us and our desire for clean streets and a clean community. It’s not about our desires to keep wildlife and pets safe. It’s not about our desire to stop environmental degradation. It’s about the person doing the littering, their desires, and their motivations. It’s about figuring out what lever will shift their mindset and their behaviour. It’s about finding what will resonate with them.

Based on what we find in Chippenham, one target audience for such interventions should be those buying energy drinks. What appeals to them? What is going to make them sit up and pay attention? What will encourage them to identify themselves and their behaviour in a campaign?

Take, for example, the brands Red Bull or Monster. These are the top two energy drinks found as litter in Chippenham, and these are just a few of the ads I found for them after doing an image search. Someone who associates themselves with Monster is unlikely to respond to adverts like this:

Meanwhile, Red Bull has successfully identified a pain point and put their audience into the ad, showing them a magical elixir that will give you the energy to go from work to the gym, crack on with creativity, or survive exam season. A key part of their brand strategy is associating themselves with events or activities that are seen as “fun” or even healthy, even though the truth about energy drinks is that they are anything but.

Businesses use what they know about customers to produce ads with measurable impact. They look for those places where they can put a lever then push it for all their worth. Why don’t anti-litter interventions do likewise? How do we break out of the anti-litter echo chamber to listen to those who have different views?

It would be great if companies would share information about their audience research with those working to stop litter, but at the very least we need to nick a page from the big brands’ playbook and talk to their target audience. Where are the focus groups that concentrate on the audience of the most littered brands? What imaging and messaging appeals to them? What is going to change their behaviour—how do we make not littering the preferred choice in their mind, regardless of situation?

Based on a quick glance at the Monster and Red Bull Facebook pages, their focus is on entertainment such as sports and music, showcasing those who push themselves to the limit in these respective categories. Does this mean that short videos of people binning litter in extreme ways—on a skateboard, BMX bike, and surfboard (to name the first few sports on Monster’s Facebook page)—have the potential to break through regarding the correct behaviour? Regardless of the content, we must recognise that there is a gap between what we have been doing and what needs to be done if we want to have genuine impact.

In a perfect world, I would love to see a campaign that blanketed the UK with numerous messages under the same easily recognisable branding. There would be short, sharp ads aimed at those who are more likely to litter: these would be highly targeted to reach specific audiences, whether it’s fast food tossers or football fans. Sending a message about the consequences of littering would have a broader audience but the focus would be on the negative impact to the person themselves. This would be supported by genuine enforcement. Other ads would be downright positive in comparison. Perhaps local views with the tagline “Better without litter”?

Clear messaging. Enforcement. Education. Taken as a whole, they send the message that litter is a priority and that it’s being taken seriously. It removes the current cultural uncertainty and replaces it with a black-and-white option: take your rubbish home (or use a bin) or there will be a consequence. There is no misunderstanding what the proper behaviour is. Success will not happen overnight—there is no magic bullet to this problem—but bit by bit, it can serve to change the culture by showing the new norm.

Returning to the false consensus bias, it is easy to imagine that those who litter have the thought process “If there’s litter everywhere, then everyone must litter. One more piece isn’t going to hurt.” By providing clear and ubiquitous messaging, we can potentially begin to shift current attitudes towards a real, and lasting, consensus.

[ Read more about anti-litter messaging: WHAT * WHEN * WHERE ]