Has Aamir Khan got it wrong

(Is this advertisement pro littering?)


Can Advertisements created to discourage littering go wrong and do the opposite instead? Researches (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990 Experiment 1) have proved that the famous American ad, Iron Eyes Cody 1- 16th best television commercial of all time (by TV Guide magazine 1999), broadcasted for many years in the 1970s and 1980s intended to discourage littering may have gone wrong.

Several years after the Iron Eyes Cody ad, could the Aamir Khan Advertisement have repeated the same mistake? This article will analyse an ad designed to discourage littering at public places.

Watch the PSA

You may watch the PSA( public service announcement) below, think about its effectiveness and come back to the article. Non- Hindi speakers may read the below transcript and then watch the ad for better comprehension.

The ad begins with a very famous movie actor speaking – “India today, due to fast development, is being perceived by the world as a great nation. However the world also has another impression about as well… Let’s watch”. Then you see foreign tourist getting surprised and disgusted by people littering at public places in India. It ends with the actor saying “Consciously or unconsciously are you too are putting up such an image of your nation…. You respect is in your own hands. ”


Let’s analyse the effectiveness of this PSA (public service announcement) based on two broad areas of research in social psychology:

1.Persuasion Style : Central Vs Peripheral Route-The current ad is trying to say that you must keep your cities clean because your nation’s image is at stake in front of foreign tourists. In doing so it uses peripheral route to persuasion. It may be noted here that this is the first major PSA regarding littering. Keeping this in mind, this PSA raises two questions in the mid of viewers–

a)      Should we not have a clean city/ nation if there were no tourists?

b)      Is cleanliness for our own good or for us to appear better to a tourist?

Message content, which is an important component of persuasion style, is neither logical (as per above reasons) nor does it arouse strong emotions, for which this ad presents a weak argument. (Cacioppo & others, 1983, 1996; Hovland & others, 1949)

2. Crafting Normative message:Tourists arriving at a swanky new airport encounter a citizen spitting on the airport floor. On seeing a foreign tourist noticing him, this man casually waves at him. In another visual a girl is seen casually throwing a banana peel. While in the last visual a boy is seen peeing on the side of a highway road.

The Cleanliness India PSA uses tourist’s reaction/ disgust as injunctive norm against littering.

However, similar to Iron Eyes Cody PSA, the resultant impact of injunctive norm against littering may be undermined by the unintended presentation of a descriptive norm for littering. In each of the three acts the public is shown as very casual about littering even on being spotted by the tourist. Since we are using tourist’s reaction as an injunctive norm, public’s descriptive norm, despite being spotted littering, may undermine the injunctive norm. Casual reaction shown by the citizen even on being spotted littering by a foreign tourist may be an indicator of pro-littering descriptive norm. (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990 Experiment 1)

This representation of descriptive norm – “that littering is very common and many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting message “Many people are doing this.”

Moreover humorous representation of descriptive norm, when the banana peel casually thrown away falls on the camera of a tourist, is especially damaging since propagates descriptive norm for littering in a humorous way.

Suggestion for improvement

If i were to suggest a revision of Cleanliness campaign in India, then –

a)      Follow central route of persuasion:Since this is the first such PSA in India, it must directly address the problem instead of relating it to something secondary as from a tourist’s point of view.  I think the ad must focus on building strong central argument on cleanliness than using peripheral cues such as foreign tourist finding littering disgusting.

I advocate the use of strong central argument since according to Persuasion research by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo (1986; Petty & others, 2005), and Alice Eagly and Shelly Chaiken (1993), when people are motivated and able to think about an issue, they are likely to take the central route to persuasion – focussing on the arguments. Cleanliness is one such issue about which there is already enough awareness and people know the importance of it. Hence the current campaign, using a peripheral route to persuasion by saying that we must keep our cities clean because a foreign tourist will feel disgusted by it, creates little impact.

b)      If we were to revise the current PSA then a conceptually meaningful modification of changing the depicted public’s reaction on being spotted littering from casual to shame would change the perceived descriptive norm regarding littering. Also removal of damaging humours depiction of banana peel falling on tourist’s camera is a must. Then when the tourists appear disgusted on seeing littering, viewers would be exposed to injunctive and descriptive norms guiding behaviour in the same direction.


Watch Iron Eyes Cody PSA