The Butt of a Joke: Using Humor in Social Media Messages to Motivate Proper Cigarette Butt Disposal

A pile of sandy cigarette butts.

Researchers at Keene State College and the University of New Haven are using multimedia text messaging to deliver persuasive, positive, humorous messages focused on proper cigarette butt disposal to college students living near National Estuary Programs across the US.

Type of Project: Marine Debris Prevention Grant

Region: Northeast

Project Dates: August 2018 - July 2021

Who is involved?
With the Support of a NOAA MDP Prevention Grant, Researchers at Keene State College in New Hampshire and the University of New Haven in Connecticut are using multimedia text messaging to deliver persuasive, positive, humorous messages focused on proper cigarette butt disposal to college students living near National Estuary Programs across the US. The goal of this project is to change cigarette butt littering behavior of student smokers for the protection of ocean ecosystems.

What is the project and why is it important?
As public health efforts to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke indoors push smokers outdoors, the percentage of cigarette butts disposed of on the ground is likely increasing. Ocean Conservancy found that cigarette butts were the most common form of litter collected during the International Coastal Cleanup, with 2.4 million butts collected in 2017 alone. Cigarette butts are a pervasive, long-lasting, and toxic form of marine debris. They primarily reach our waterways through improper disposal on beaches, rivers, and anywhere on land, transported to our coasts by runoff and stormwater. Once butts reach the marine environment, they may impact organisms and habitats.

Using social media campaigns, collaboration with universities’ Student Health Services, and advertisements from National Estuary Program directors and National Sea Grant College Programs, researchers at Keene State College are recruiting college students to participate in a social science study. In partnership with graphic design students, theater troops, and comedians, the researchers are designing, testing, and finalizing positive, humorous multimedia text messages to send to college students who live in proximity to National Estuary Programs across the US. The study is then analyzing student responses to assess behavior change surrounding cigarette butt disposal methods. At its conclusion, this project will share successful messages with others interested in cigarette butt pollution and marine debris across the US and worldwide.