Wayback Wednesday: 1971 “Keep America Beautiful” Ad Featuring Iron Eyes Cody

Every Wednesday AdForum's James Thompson features a notable ad from the past that in some way revolutionized advertising by profoundly impacting our industry, our culture, or the way our society interacts with commerce. 

by James Thompson

(Please keep in mind that many of these ads were made a very long time ago, which is evident in the quality of the videos. Time marches on, perhaps at a quicker pace in the advertising industry than any other known realm.)

This Wednesday we take a trip back to 1971 when, believe it or not, the environment across America was taking a beating from citizens and corporations who never associated a healthy environment with their own quality of life. Litter was rampant. So was smoking, cigarette butts, and—apparently—roadside bags filled with discarded fast food. And corporations dumped waste into rivers and ecosystems with impunity. Though we like to look back on the past with a whimsical sense of nostalgia, the truth is 1971 wasn’t paradise.

Then there was the culture, which had never even heard of political correctness. This ad features Iron Eyes Cody, who became known as “The Crying Indian” across America. The emotional appeal of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign was a huge success, and not only garnered two Clio awards, but curtailed litter by 88% across three states.

Advertising professionals are always in search of the elusive “It factor” where the confluence or combination of certain factors and qualities catapult an idea or work into the cultural narrative where it resonates in profound ways. This is different than the contemporary phenomenon of going viral; a video of a kitten wrestling toilet paper can go viral, but it doesn’t have a true emotional impact on people, and dies as soon of the sincerity of the moment passes.

But the "Keep America Beautiful" ad is different. It's message is relevant, honest, and sincere. And let's face it, part of the enduring appeal of this ad occurs at :42, when a bag of fast food tossed from a passing car lands at the feet of the Iron Eyes Cody, highlighting an absurdly poor production value that could only happen in a time untouched by modern digital technologies.

The Crying Indian, however, remains an indelible image in our culture, and one that represented an America that was on the verge of change as our understanding of the environment, pollution, and accountability was called into question.

The advertising industry today, however, still has much in common with advertising in 1971. Iron Eyes Cody was 100% Italian. 

Previous Wayback Wednesday pieces:

Yogi Berrra orange juice ad from 1957

Oscar Mayer Wiener Ad from 1965

McDonald’s Breakfast ad from 1978

U.S. Navy Ad From 1978 

Mean Joe Greene Coca-Cola ad from 1979

Apple Macintosh ad from 1984

New Coke ad from 1985

New York Mets ad from 1986

Darth Vader vs. Energizer Bunny Ad from 1994

Dumb Ways to Die ad from 2012