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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Return of Iron Eyes Cody

Air Date: Week of May 22, 1998

One of television's best known public service announcements first appeared in 1971. It showed a native-American, in full headdress, shedding a single tear for the environment. The "Crying Indian" was produced for "Keep America Beautiful"; a group created by packaged good companies to raise awareness about the nation's mounting litter problem. The image is back in a new television spot. But, commentator John Carroll says they just don't make them like they used to. Commentator John Carroll is media critic for WGBH television in Boston.

Transcript

CURWOOD: One of television's best known public service announcements first appeared in 1971. It showed a Native American in full headdress shedding a single tear for the environment. The crying Indian was produced for Keep America Beautiful, a group created by packaged goods companies to raise awareness about the nation's mounting litter problem. The image is back, now, in a new television spot. But as commentator John Carroll says, they just don't make 'em like they used to.

CARROLL: In 1971, Native Americans were still Indians and PSAs were still taken seriously as a public responsibility by the major TV networks. Now, of course, Indians are strictly those living in the triangle south of the Himalayas, and television networks have replaced traditional PSAs with politically correct bromides delivered by sitcom stars. But none of them will ever have the impact of Iron Eyes Cody, who gave pollution a bad name without saying a word.

(PSA music)

CARROLL: The classic PSA showed Cody canoeing down a river which becomes increasingly choked with trash as he approaches a smog-covered industrial area. After beaching the canoe, he walks up to a highway where a passing motorist tosses a bag of trash at his feet.

(Music continues. Male voice-over: "Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country." Music continues. "And some people don't. People start pollution. People can stop it.")

CARROLL: The PSA caught the first wave of the environmental movement, making an impression that's lasted almost as long as a plastic trash bag in a landfill. But the same probably won't be said for the new version of the anti-litter PSA.

(Horns, people milling)

CARROLL: This one shows a group of people milling around a bus stop and performing their morning rituals: reading the paper, drinking coffee, grabbing a smoke. The bus comes along and as people board it, they drop behind the newspapers, cups, and cigarette butts. The camera tilts up to a large picture on the bus shelter: Iron Eyes Cody with a real tear running down the photo. The screen then goes black except for the words, "Back by popular neglect."

(PSA music up and under)

CARROLL: Creatively, this new ad is to the old one what naugahide is to leather. But the main reason it will never have the environmental impact of the original PSA is that today's media environment is itself polluted, in part by the same companies that underwrite Keep America Beautiful. While the makers of Glad bags sponsor the Bag-A-Thon Program to clean up litter and Sherwin-Williams foots the bill for an anti-graffiti effort, they and other corporations also clog the airwaves with endless ads, promotions, and mercantile white noise. Perhaps they could better improve society by bagging some of the media litter that makes it so hard for worthy causes to be heard these days.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator John Carroll is media critic for WGBH television in Boston.

 

 

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