It’s an advert that is infamous in environmental circles. A man who appears to be an indigenous American paddles a canoe downstream. He starts in relatively pristine waters, but soon paddles alongside discarded newspapers, past industrial buildings, and finally pulls his canoe ashore on a bank littered with waste.
“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” reads the voiceover. “And some people don’t,” it continues, as a motorist throws litter from their window, spilling at the feet of the canoeist. “People start pollution and people can stop it,” the voiceover concludes, as the camera zooms in on a tear rolling down the man’s cheek. The advert became known as the “crying Indian” campaign.
The advert was later heavily criticised for passing the responsibility of reducing litter pollution onto consumers (and for employing an Italian American actor to play the role of an indigenous American), but when it first aired in 1971 it won awards for its environmental message, says Finis Dunaway, professor of American environmental history at Trent University in Canada.
The advert was paid for by Keep America Beautiful, a group established in the 1950s by leaders from packaging companies like the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, and other public figures. Keep America Beautiful campaign against littering, but have also lobbied against bottle bills and legislation that would have required packaging to be returnable or recyclable rather than disposable, says Dunaway, who is also the author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images.
Rather than addressing the root cause of America’s litter problem – the fact that there was much more disposable packaging after World War Two – their advertising campaigns focused on the bad behaviour of some consumers, he says. “Images and feelings were being manipulated by corporations to put the onus on the individual.”
Initially, “environmental groups like the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club – in other words big mainstream groups – were part of the Advisory Board for Keep America Beautiful”, says Dunaway. “Many of these groups resigned their membership. They no longer wanted to be associated with Keep America Beautiful after this ad, because they saw it as what we today call greenwashing.”
Keep American Beautiful say they have “retired the ‘Crying Indian’ campaign and assigned all intellectual property rights to The National Congress of American Indians”. They also say they will continue to campaign against litter.
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