What Is Wrong with The Crying Indian PSA?

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.

Cialdini concludes:

Public service communicators should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.

More like this

Social-norms campaigns are intended to mitigate problem behaviors by conveying the message that problem behavior occurs with far less frequency than people think (e.g. teenage drinking). But for individuals who already abstain from the undesirable behavior, this can actually produce a boomerang…
Livonia, Michigan (Orac's home town!) is having an election for city council. This is not newsworthy. What is amusing, however, is the candidacy of Glenn Moon, who is running on the issues of abortion, littering, and paying city employees a salary of $1 per year plus the love of Jesus Christ. He is…
tags: public service announcement, Sussex Safer Roads Partnership, seatbelts, automobiles, vehicles, safety, safer roads, Embrace Life, streaming video This is a very touching public service announcement (PSA) by the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership, asking people to always wear their seatbelts when…
It's Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., and, despite the crappy economy, there are still things to be thankful for. For instance, skeptical activism can still be effective. Remember how on Sunday Skepchick Elyse put out the call to Skepchic readers to complain to movie theaters that were reportedly…

Plus there is the fact that Iron Eyes Cody wasn't a real 'Indian'.

By AnonymousCoward (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

It might also be argued that the PSA wasn't really intended to be effective(at its implied purpose, at any rate). Keep America Beautiful is basically a greenwash outfit for the manufacturers of what becomes litter, pushing against any policy that would cost them money, and in favor of the idea that litter is caused by individual moral weakness. Their current board of directors continues in that vein.

phisrow made the point I was about to.

Absolutely right -- ever wonder HOW protecting the environment somehow became "put your disposable plastic everything in the trash" instead of "don't let manufacturer's turn every product into something disposable and plastic"?

Every problem has different leverage points to push at. Some will make a huge difference with small pressure; others will have no real effect at all even with huge pressure. It's blazingly obvious with a little thought that "don't litter" is the latter kind of pressure point... but no one seems to notice, or try to shift the focus.

It's true that Cody was not really a Native American/Indian. It's also true that he wasn't genuinely crying. Neither of these facts change the meaning.

I'd also like to point out the add does a fine job of stereotyping Native Americans.

Thanks for the article link, phisrow. It was well written and opened my eyes to something I was completely unaware of regarding that ad and the Ad Council in general.

Lobster, for those who don't know those facts you conclusion may be true. But I think as part of this post is intending to point out, context has a significant impact on the take home message (and how we act on said message). Some may not be bothered by the lack of genuine tears or Native Americans, other like myself believe it ultimately undermines the message. Symbols and stereotypes have a plasticity to them and often absorb the meanings of the eras they travel through. In this case, it is rather distracting and discrediting to the advertisers to have an Italian American actor playing a stereotype in such a demeaning manner. Additionally, if the Orion article's analysis is remotely accurate, the message is already tarnished. Not too mention the contemporary analysis of the structure and content of the advertisement that Jennifer has pointed out.

Interesting stuff, questioning some of my assumptions.

Thanks for the article link, phisrow. It was well written and opened my eyes to something I was completely unaware of regarding that ad and the Ad Council in general.

Lobster, for those who don't know those facts you conclusion may be true. But I think as part of this post is intending to point out, context has a significant impact on the take home message (and how we act on said message). Some may not be bothered by the lack of genuine tears or Native Americans, other like myself believe it ultimately undermines the message. Symbols and stereotypes have a plasticity to them and often absorb the meanings of the eras they travel through. In this case, it is rather distracting and discrediting to the advertisers to have an Italian American actor playing a stereotype in such a demeaning manner. Additionally, if the Orion article's analysis is remotely accurate, the message is already tarnished. Not too mention the contemporary analysis of the structure and content of the advertisement that Jennifer has pointed out.

Interesting stuff, questioning some of my assumptions.

Sorry but the issue is waaay too complex to distill it all down into a simple little experiment that supposedly discredits the entire PSA (which, by the article exploits a pre-existing storyline that most people love -- "what you thought was the case is wrong"). You had to have been around in the early 60's (like some of us geezers) and see how "the norm" truly was to visit your local fast food joint, eat your burger in the car, then throw the trash out the window in the same way that people still do at the movie theater, knowing someone will come along and clean it up.

Lady Bird Johnson put the skids on that behavior in a big way in 1965 as the figurehead for the Highway Beautification Act. By the late sixties non-littering was already an established trend. To make any sense of the Indian PSA, you have to put it into that historical context, which the article makes absolutely no mention of, and I don't even know how you do any sort of multivariate assessment to get at that. The main point is that the PSA wasn't working on a blank canvas (the way things were in 1965). It was simply strengthening an already existing trend. Bottom line, it's a flimsy article which ... eh hem ... fails to include the proper baseline.

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 24 Jun 2009 #permalink

Phillip, now we're touching upon the nature of art (including advertising). He's an actor, and there's some assumption that the audience (you and I) are willing participants, meaning we're willing to suspend some disbelief. After all, it doesn't take much thought to realize how very unlikely it is that a TV camera just happened to be filming this old Native American when he noticed the litter and shed a tear.

You may be distracted by the fact that he's not actually a Native American - and that reaction is both understandable and valid - but if you are, it is impossible for that actor to deliver that message to you in that way.

However, I think we are digressing. :)

Public service communicators should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.

How come it works for right-wingers with their various bogeymen?

Azkyroth, I would actually say it explains why campaigns like "abstinence only" ultimately fail. The findings don''t stop organizations from continually sending such messages, it just states that the desired outcomes may be negatively affected.

That said, when I turn the tables on some the local issues in Utah, like illegal ATV trail-use on public lands, it might explain some of what many of us regionally consider failed ad campaigns.

Phillip

What Randy Olson said. It used to be the norm to throw trash out the windows (and it still is in a lot of other countries, by the way). It's probably impossible to tell whether the Iron Eyes Cody campaign had any effect on that, but sometime in the mid to late 1960s, (many, not all) people realized they shouldn't throw trash out on the street.

Unfortunately, cigarette smokers haven't got the message yet. They think nothing of tossing their butts out the window, or dumping their ashtrays in the median at a stoplight. Fortunately they're a dying breed.

The "Don't Mess With Texas" campaign was pretty ubiquitous and effectively played off of basically nationalistic pride. But it also did some very simple things like giving out little trash-bags to keep in your car which (anecdotal) worked well.

A key to a good campaign to change behaviours is to provide a reasonable alternative. I'm sure there is a lesson in there for safe-sex vs abstinence only.

PS: Texas was significantly less crazy (radicalized) politics wise back then too... which helped. These days the campaign would probably be dismissed by ~30% of people as big-government liberal propaganda.

Cialdini and his team found people are far more likely to litter in an already littered environment than in a clean one.

Isn't that basically a rehash of the 'broken windows' theory?

I wish he would come back because the commercial failed through no fault of his own or the ad council but brcause a bunch of lazy arrogant spoiled american slobs who dont give a sh.t

By Brian mino (not verified) on 20 Nov 2010 #permalink

In canada it is so clean you could almost eat off the street. Detroit to windsor ontario one is a complete human toilet/ghetto and waste dump cross the bridge and the other not even a cigarette but on the sidewalk. And as for chief iron eyes cody if he wanted to marrie out of his race an indian and adopt two indian children that was his perogative freedom of expression right? After all you americans are the only idiots in thr world who are so fascinated and obsessed with race. And besides the italians were neutral let the guilt fall on the english and the spanish for indian massacres. There is no need for the littering and graffiti that scares america. In canada ther is no need for the indian to cry. And the message is quite clear dont pollute italian or indian or anyone else.

By Brian mino (not verified) on 20 Nov 2010 #permalink

Im sorry scars america not scares.

By Brian mino (not verified) on 22 Nov 2010 #permalink

The commercial didn't fail.
People did.
Blame yourselves.
Too many pigs stcking their snouts in the trough and not cleaning up after themselves is the failure.
You people are zombies. WAKE UP ALREADY.
You live in the NEW WORLD ORDER.
You have been fattened for the slaughter and time's up.

crying indian