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Research

1998 Litter Attitudes and Behaviors Study

This report documents the research study conducted by NuStats International for the Texas Department of Transportation on the topic of littering behavior in Texas. Littering is not something many people would openly admit, given its social undesirability and illegality.

Asking people if they litter is akin to asking them if they park in handicapped spaces, shop lift, and cheat on their taxes. Encouraging respondents to provide honest answers posed a significant research challenge. To meet the challenge, NuStats and Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia developed interviewing techniques – specifically for this survey – to ask respondents about their littering behavior. These techniques produced results that are both dramatic and revealing in their ability to tell the story of Texans who engage in littering behavior. Using an interviewing approach that was non-accusatory, and non-threatening, NuStats was able to elicit honest answers from Texans answers about their involvement in contributing to the tons of litter that end up on Texas roads each year, as well as their attitudes and suggestions on litter prevention.

The survey on which this data is comprised was collected during telephone interviews with 1201 residents of the state of Texas. The sample is geographically proportional so that every area of the state is represented. The interviews were conducted by NuStats during early June and mid July of 1998.

Current Behavior

Perhaps the most telling result of the study is that 52% of Texans either participated in, or condoned, littering behavior in the past three years. That means that more than one half of all Texas residents reported involvement in littering behavior, or being tolerant of the littering behavior of their peers.

Based on the survey data, Texans can be classified into one of five categories: Gross Litterers (they have personally discarded significant litter in the past three months), Micro Litterers (they have personally discarded cigarette butts, food, candy wrapper and other minor litter in the past three months), Reformed Litterers (they have personally discarded major or minor litter in the past 36 months), Tolerant Litterers (they have not personally discarded litter, but have been with people that have, but did not condemn the behavior) and Non Litterers (they never litter). It’s the Gross Litterer that commits the most serious offense.

The top five predictors of littering behavior are being young, smoking, eating fast food at least twice a week, driving more than 50 miles a day and going out to bars or other nighttime entertainment at least once a week. While not everyone who is young, smokes and eats a lot of fast food is a litterer, those demographics and lifestyles are more likely to be predictors of littering behavior. For example, of those Texans who smoke, 33% are Micro Litterers, compared to 17% for non-smokers.

Profile of a Litterer

The profiles of Gross and Micro Litterers are detailed in this report, yet it is worth mentioning that the Texans in these groups are overwhelmingly teenagers and young adults. Of those under age 21, almost 20% are Gross Litterers and 30% are Micro Litterers. In comparison, of those age 25 to 29, only 10% are considered Gross Litterers and 23% are Micro Litterers. As people move out of the teen years and into adulthood, there is a drop-off in their propensity to litter. Adults over age 30 are much less likely to engage in Gross or Micro Littering behavior than are those 21 to 24, and adults over age 40 are less likely to litter than people in their 30s.

While gender is not a major predictor of littering behavior, the findings indicate that young males are more likely to be Gross Litterers (20% are Gross Litterers and 27% are Micro Litterers). Interestingly, young females are equally as likely as young males to be Micro Litterers.

Public Attitudes About Littering

Texans hold solid perceptions and attitudes about littering, including who does it, how serious a problem it is, and what they would personally do to prevent it. In terms of sources of litter, Texans perceive that people who are drinking alcohol and then throw out trash on the roads are a major source of the litter problem in the state. They also perceive dumping construction materials and teenagers as nearly equal sources of litter. Interestingly, Texans perceive teens as a major source of litter, and this survey shows that of all litterers (including Gross, Micro, Reformed and Tolerant) in Texas, 16% are between the ages of 16 and 24.

While Texans perceive all types of litter as a problem, there are varying degrees of severity. For example, beer cans and bottles are seen as a major problem, while cigarette butts are seen as a minor problem. There does seem to be some connection between the size of the litter and its perceived severity (smaller = less of a problem).

Litter Prevention Strategies

In terms of what messages would be effective to reduce or prevent litter, Texans overall perceive that “reminding people that the fine for littering is up to $2,000″ would be the most effective message. Comparatively, telling people that not littering is the “right thing to do” would be least effective. One message uses an element of penalty and consequence, while the other is altruistic. The Don’t Mess with Texas campaign is considered to be successful because it doesn’t say please – which seems to fit with Texans’ viewpoints.

Other messages that Texans perceive as effective include letting fast food, beer and cigarette companies use the Don’t Mess With Texas slogan on their packaging and in their advertising. The tie-in, or partnering, with various companies, could reinforce the litter prevention message to all Texans, and to visitors, while at the same time targeting many of the Gross and Micro Litterers directly at the point of purchase.

Awareness of Campaign and Slogan

About two-thirds (62%) of all Texans are very aware of the Don’t Mess with Texas ad campaign or slogan. Of those, almost one quarter have top-of-mind ad awareness, and 38% have top-of-mind slogan awareness. Texans with aided awareness of the campaign or slogan account for 34% of the public. Less than 5% of all Texans are totally unaware of the Don’t Mess With Texas campaign or slogan. It should be pointed out that one in five of all Texans who are aware of the slogan do not have the correct understanding of the intent of the message: litter prevention. In addition to awareness, more than 90% want to see the campaign continued, which suggests that Texans have a high level of both awareness and acceptance of the campaign.

Conclusions

The Don’t Mess with Texas advertising campaign has a long history of success in the state, both for its use of well-known spokespersons, and for its tough stance on litter. Those four words do not say please and they do not ask people to not litter, they flat out say, “Don’t do it.” Combined with the high level of public awareness of the ads and slogan, it is clear that the campaign should be continued.

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