As part of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, “The Crying Indian” spot first aired in 1971 and was shown throughout the 1970s and 80s. It won two Clio Awards and was named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th Century by Ad Age Magazine:
But research in psychology shows that this public service announcement (PSA) may not have been as effective as is widely believed.
Research by Bob Cialdini at Arizona State University reveals that the PSA’s main message — that we should not litter — may have been undermined by showing how many people do in fact litter.
In his article titled Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2003, Cialdini points out:
Creators of the ad seem to have been correctin their decision to show a dismaying instance of someone (the passing motorist) actively littering the environment; but they may have been mistaken in their decision to use an already-littered environment…
This is because through a series of staged experiments on littering, Cialdini and his team found people are far more likely to litter in an already littered environment than in a clean one.
Public service communicators should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.