The "Don't Mess with Texas" foundation, dedicated to keeping the state's highways free of litter, is experimenting with an innovative marketing strategy aimed at younger Texans: let them spread the word themselves.
The Car2Can video contest introduced earlier this month challenges participants to create their own commercial to reinforce the idea that trash belongs in a can - not on the roads. The first-place winner will see his or her commercial air on primetime television and will receive a $500 Wal-Mart gift card.
The guidelines for a winning commercial are simple. "The big picture for the video, of course, is creativity. We are also looking for the simple message of 'put your trash in a trash can,'" said Brenda Flores-Dollar, program manager for the agency's Travel Information Division.
TxDOT's contest requires that the commercials be submitted by June 28. They will be evaluated by a five-judge panel and public voting open to Texans who visit the Web site.
The Texas Department of Transportation's well-known "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign has long been innovative, using celebrities such as actors Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Owen Wilson and rap artist Chamillionaire in its commercials.
TxDOT believes its efforts are working. Its studies show a decline in trash tossed onto Texas roadways, from an estimated 1 billion pieces in 2001 to 827 million in 2005. The next study will be later this year.
Demographics generated a few years ago from an outside research group revealed that 55 percent of Texans admit to littering. But the most prolific trash tossers - 77 percent - were 16 to 24 years old.
For that reason, it was decided that the shoot-your-own-commercial campaign should be geared toward a younger audience. "This is the YouTube generation," Flores-Dollar said.
Other organizations and companies have used similar strategies. Frito Lay and GM challenged amateur videographers to design their 2007 Super Bowl XLI commercials.
GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan recalled Chevrolet's Super Bowl advertising campaign as a success. "It was an opportunity to introduce young people to our Chevrolet brand," he said.
However a year earlier, Chevrolet struggled with its "make your own Tahoe commercial" campaign when many people used the company's Web site as a medium to post videos that were considered harmful to the Chevrolet brand.
Dr. Glenn Griffin, assistant professor of advertising at SMU, said the trend toward letting amateurs do the work of professionals has a lot of potential upside, particularly because it taps into consumers' energy about a product so the sellers don't have to engineer it, he said.
Griffin was a part of SMU's advertising class that won a video competition for a Chipotle commercial in 2006.
One danger to the strategy is that "companies are forced to hand over their brand or product to the public at large and you don't know what they are going to do with it," he said.
Griffin applauded TxDOT's approach.
"It's cheap, it generates a lot of press exposure, and you'll never believe what people will create for their moment in the sun," he said.