min read

Uncovering the Hidden Drivers of Cigarette Litter

A behavioural approach to Keep Britain Tidy


It’s estimated that 2.4 million cigarette butts are dropped on our high streets at any given moment. That amounts to a piece of smoking-related litter every seven metres, making cigarette butts the most littered item in the UK. Each of these butts will take at least 14 years to break apart into microplastics, and in the process of doing so, they’re leaching toxic chemicals into our environment.

Cowry partnered with VCCP and Keep Britain Tidy (KBT), a UK-based environmental charity, on a behaviour change campaign to tackle this pressing issue. Through research conducted by Cowry’s team, we were able to better understand why this littering behaviour is occurring and how best to tackle it through an integrated campaign.


Behavioural Challenge



Uncover subconscious insights

KBT works to reduce littering, improve local places, and promote recycling and waste reduction. One of the biggest challenges that KBT faces is the littering of cigarette butts; something they’re committed to continue tackling.

Previous research commissioned by KBT suggested smokers conduct this behaviour due to the lack of cigarette bins. However, campaigns informed by these insights have so far been unsuccessful at changing cigarette littering behaviour.

KBT therefore approached VCCP and Cowry to better understand smokers’ implicit motivations, with the ultimate aim of using this research to inform a behaviour change campaign that reduced cigarette litter.

Methodology & Insights


As behavioural scientists, we know that claimed behaviour doesn't always translate to actual behaviour. For this reason, we adopted a combined research approach to explore smoking habits and consequently, how people dispose of cigarettes.

As part of our research, we conducted a comprehensive academic literature review as well as 15 in-depth behavioural interviews. The behavioural interviews involved using facial expression analysis, a method analysing non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tone of voice and body language to understand more implicitly why people behave as they do. We asked these individuals about their smoking habits, how they dispose of cigarettes, and had them explain pictures representing their relationship with smoking and littering.

By examining both verbal and non-verbal cues, our primary goal was to understand smokers' behaviour in social contexts. We then analysed data from these interviews using the COM-B framework, identifying patterns that led to the formulation of distinct customer segments based on attitudes, behaviours and motivations.


Analysing the interviews revealed critical differences between explicit and implicit motivations for littering. Whilst many explicitly spoke of environmental concerns relating to littering, implicit research techniques revealed social factors to be even more important.

Through our behavioural profiling exercise, three distinct profiles emerged with clear commonalities. This profiling exercise revealed unique barriers, drivers, and preferences that went above and beyond sociodemographic data. Each profile displayed different levels of self-awareness, but most importantly, all participants within each profile responded best to empathetic messaging than to moralistic or even just humouristic content.

Intervention & Testing

The TV ad overwhelmingly drives positive emotions. The primary emotion smokers experienced was amusement. This prompts a positive and open mindset, meaning they’re more likely to listen to the message. The ads then produces complex social emotions (i.e. guilt) which motivate self-reflection and increases reparatory behaviours after conducting a transgression (i.e., littering).

The TV ad not only caused more smokers to agree that butts are pieces of rubbish, but they were also much faster to respond after watching the ad, meaning they were more confident and sure of their choice.

The ad decreased littering intentions, with smokers 57% less likely to throw cigarette butts on the floor.


We summarised our insights into a scientific formula designed to inform a TV campaign suitable for all profiles identified in our data analysis. We worked in partnership with our client and creative agency to develop a behavioural broadcast campaign that taps into these implicit and explicit motivations.

To ensure the campaign would be effective and drive the correct behavioural response, we tested it using an Implicit Response Test (IRT). An IRT measures the strengths of associations that individuals have between concepts and attitudes, and allows us to study smokers’ responses before they are consciously aware. In testing the campaign through an IRT we were able to conclude the above three points. 

One of the main aims of this testing phase was to ensure the TV ad didn't drive unintended consequences. Particularly, we wanted to make sure the ad didn't increase craving behaviours. Our research showed that not only did the ad not create short-term craving responses, but it might actually decrease them (i.e., immediately after watching the ad, people showed lower levels of implicit craving responses). 

With overwhelmingly positive results from the IRT,  our campaign is set to be live and visible via TVs and key AV spots. It’ll also be taking over the O2 Arena over the course of a two-week period. The O2 takeover intervention will act as an experiment to measure how effective communications can be in reducing the littering of cigarette butts at the Arena. Bespoke campaign materials will be displayed, ranging from digital out-of-home advertising, to floor decals, posters, duck murals and queue barriers.

By understanding the implicit motivations behind cigarette littering and crafting empathetic messaging, we aim to make a meaningful impact on reducing this pervasive environmental issue.

Want to find out more?

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