“People Can Stop It”: Three Ecology PSAs, 1971 – 1977

Exhibit / September 25, 2017

Object Type: Television public service announcements
“Crying Indian” PSA: Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful, 1971
Woodsy Owl PSA: Public Service Council and U.S. Forest Service, circa late 1970s
“Does It Have To Be This Way”: Environmental Protection Agency, 1975
Description: (Michael Grasso)

With the first Earth Day in 1970, ecology and environmental protection entered the public consciousness in a way not seen since the 1962 release of biologist Rachel Carson’s investigation into the effects of DDT, Silent Spring. Earth Day tapped the nascent environmental movement among scientists and conservationists and gave it a public face. In the next few years, citizens and consumers in the United States would see the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the ship Greenpeace‘s first activist mission to stop a nuclear test (1971), and the release of a number of environmentally-themed public service announcements (or PSAs) on television meant to get Americans of all ages to think about their own impact on their physical and natural environment.

The history of the television public service announcement begins with wartime propaganda during World War II, when radio networks and figures from the field of public relations lent their time and effort to craft messages for the home front. The War Advertising Council evolved in the postwar years into the Ad Council, familiar from countless PSAs throughout the television era. In 1967, as medical evidence for the harmfulness of cigarette smoking began to become public knowledge, advertising agencies and broadcasters united (grudgingly) with activists and non-profit organizations to produce and air PSAs about the dangers of smoking. This series of campaigns was created in order for television broadcasters to fulfill the requirements of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine as invoked by activist John Banzhaf in late 1966. In less than five years, tobacco advertising was banned from the television airwaves. These ads have not (as of yet) returned.

In the 1970s, then, the PSA industry took on the parallel issue of “pollution.” For Earth Day in 1971, the Ad Council, in association with the organization Keep America Beautiful, created the famous “crying Indian” television PSA (see top video above). The ad portrayed an Indian warrior traveling across a majestic American countryside soiled with litter and trash, but also contrasted the lone native American with the infrastructure of 20th century “progress”: factories, smokestacks, highways, and massive late-’60s automobiles. Narrator William Conrad tells us that “People start pollution; people can stop it” as the Indian looks to the TV viewer with a single tear in his eye. The spot has become fodder for parody and ironic dismissal in the years since its release, especially since it’s become common knowledge that the “Indian” in the ad, “Iron Eyes Cody,” was an Italian-American character actor who spent much of his Hollywood career playing stock Indian characters. But the PSA attained a ubiquity in the annals of pop culture because of its symbological impact. The mere act of presenting America with a reminder of its role in colonizing and exploiting the North American continent and its peoples, depicted in the face of Western consumerist “progress” run amok, is arguably as subversive an act in 1971 as it would be today.

Keep America Beautiful was founded in the 1950s as an organization dedicated to curtailing littering at public park sites. (This tendency of pre-ecology-movement picnickers and campers to simply leave all their litter behind was memorably featured in an early episode of Mad Men.) Throughout its history, KAB used celebrity spokespeople like Bing Crosby and pop culture mainstays like Star Trek (in its mid-’70s Animated Series period) to convey its small-scale ecological message.

But it wasn’t just non-profits that worked with advertisers and marketers to get the word out about protecting the environment and stopping pollution at the individual level. Government agencies with a mandate to protect and preserve America’s wild places also populated the commercial breaks of 1970s television. The USDA’s Forest Service, again in conjunction with the Ad Council, had developed the Smokey the Bear character during World War II in order to teach the basics of forest fire prevention to kids (and adults) in a wartime atmosphere where it was believed the Japanese Empire might use forest fires against the US mainland. Smokey became an abiding part of American pop culture in the Cold War years.

In the 1970s, the Forest Service sought to expand its public service campaign to fight litter and pollution, developeding a new character named Woodsy Owl in 1970. Woodsy’s television spots in the 1970s were produced with the help of the newly-formed Public Service Council, after the Ad Council had rejected Woodsy for fear of a conflict with its Smokey the Bear account. The Woodsy spots featured kids taking action on a personal level to eliminate “pollution” of all kinds; in the middle ad above, Woodsy’s pals seek to eliminate graffiti (visual pollution) and loud radios (noise pollution), remembering Woodsy’s motto, “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” In this ad, Woodsy is voiced by cartoon voice artist Sterling Holloway, who also lent his talents to voicing Winnie the Pooh; other later Woodsy voices include Barry “Donatello Turtle” Gordon and Frank “Megatron” Welker.

Even at the time, government agencies and cabinet-level departments worried about market saturation in their efforts to reach kids. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management had introduced mascot Johnny Horizon back in 1968. Interior worried that the Department of Agriculture was duplicating effort (see pages 24-25) with the introduction of the Forest Service’s Woodsy. Woodsy’s creators counter-argued that Johnny Horizon, with his square-jawed Western image, was alienating to urban children now being raised on the Muppets living on Sesame Street. While all this was going on, the Coast Guard teamed up with chemical company Owens-Corning to fund a PSA campaign to help prevent water pollution.

Reaching adults to try to change their behavior was also a goal in this era. The brand new Environmental Protection Agency, in its first few years, took the airwaves for a PSA campaign designed to encourage the use of mass transportation. The EPA’s one-minute 1975 PSA (bottom video above) starred a then-relatively unknown Tim Conway (about to break big as one of the stars of The Carol Burnett Show the same year). The ad was created from a 10-minute educational film called “Does It Have To Be This Way?” In the ad, the inconveniences and tribulations of commuting by car (traffic tickets, inconsiderate drivers, insufficient parking) are spelled out in detail, while Conway longingly views the bus (always cued with the sound of angelic harps) as a superior alternative to his stressful freeway slog. The ad’s fast pace and inventive editing (the sound of the commuter’s wristwatch creating an insistent, anxious backdrop) offers public transportation as a solution for the stresses of the modern automobile commute. The campaign alone could not dent Americans’ desire to drive to work, though; since 1960 the number of automobile commuters has tripled (Figure 2 on page 3), while riders on public transportation have remained static.

In an era when the federal government now explicitly denies that the environment needs protecting at all and terminology pertaining to anthropogenic climate change has been officially deemed “oldthink“—flushed down the memory hole—it’s downright quaint to see two Cabinet-level agencies in the Nixon/Ford 1970s argue over whose environmentalist mascot will receive the bulk of funding and publicity.

2 thoughts on ““People Can Stop It”: Three Ecology PSAs, 1971 – 1977

  1. I don’t think Johnny Horizon sounds like a particularly good choice to try to reach Gen-X kids, period. I know the Boomers loved their cowboys, but in my experience, that was just not a thing that kids in the 70’s would have cared about at all. Maybe there were kids my age somewhere that liked cowboys, but I sure don’t recall any in the small Midwestern towns I grew up in.

    • Agreed. The only cowboy stuff I remember in the ’70s and ’80s was Bonanza and The Rifleman …both of which I immediately changed the channel on as soon as they hit the air, lol. They were like, so backwards compared to the BMX, Nu-Wave and video-game laden suburbia that I was growing up in.

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