Weird History

The Shocking True Story Behind The 'Crying Indian' Commercial  

Megan Summers
1.9k views 13 items

Even if you weren't watching television in the 1970s, you've heard about the Crying Indian commercial. A Native American man in traditional garb canoes through a trash-filled river, past factories, and along crowded highways - all while a narrator bemoans the deterioration of the natural world. The commercial ends with a zoom-in on the man's face as a tear rolls down his right cheek. This visually striking scene has become synonymous with environmental activism and personal responsibility when it comes to tackling pollution.

The Crying Indian commercial was developed by the non-profit Keep America Beautiful (KAB), with a stated mission "to inspire and educate people to take action every day to improve and beautify their community environment." The Crying Indian PSA was part of a larger, decades-long collaboration between KAB and the Ad Council, founded in 1941 to work with advertising groups on public service campaigns designed to stimulate the economy by promoting business during World War II.

Why was KAB working with an industry-focused organization like the Ad Council to raise awareness about environmental concerns? The truth is KAB's founders were not as invested in anti-pollution activism as their campaign indicated, and their real motivation was to deflect responsibility for reducing waste away from corporate interests and onto people.

The Crying Indian is just the tip of the iceberg that represents KAB's marketing output and initiatives, which span from its inception in the 1950s to the present.

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Photo: clarencealford/Pixabay/Pixabay License
'Keep America Beautiful' Was Founded In 1953 By The Packaging And Beverage Industry

On its website, KAB says it was "formed in 1953 when a group of corporate and civic leaders met in New York City to bring the public and private sectors together to develop and promote a national cleanliness ethic." These "corporate and civic leaders" were members of wealthy packaging and beverage companies, including American Can Company, Owens-Illinois Glass Company, Coca-Cola, and Dixie Cup.

Unable to deny that the products they manufactured were contributing to litter and waste build-up across the country, they decided to tackle the problem by pointing fingers at people buying and using their products. Through its efforts, KAB wanted to make the public believe it was their responsibility to dispose of these products correctly, not the responsibility of companies to be more focused on sustainable practices. These packaging industry spokespeople also justified their stance by claiming it's what consumers wanted: They preferred the convenience of reusables over the hassle of refillables.

KAB Introduced The Crying Indian Commercial On Earth Day 1971

The first Earth Day was organized in 1970, a sign of a consciousness shift for the American public, especially among youth. KAB corporate interests watched fearfully as students organized demonstrations against soft drink companies in the weeks around Earth Day on April 22. These companies were so concerned about demonstrations that FBI agents were posted at plants and factories all over the country to monitor "radicals" during protests.

By the next Earth Day, KAB, in conjunction with the Ad Council, was ready with the Crying Indian commercial. They adopted a symbol of the counterculture, as well as the growing Native American resistance, to blend their messaging into the movement. The public, unaware of the interest groups financially backing the commercial, saw it as an effective public service announcement. It was so popular that TV stations wore through their video recordings of the commercial, often requesting additional copies from the Ad Council.

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Photo: Chester Higgins/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain
The Commercial Was Part Of A Campaign Designed To Tap Into The New Environmental Movement's Focus On Pollution

The Crying Indian commercial pointed to a larger messaging shift within KAB. Its noncorporate sponsors were pushing to change its focus from "litter" to "pollution." By the late '60s, pollution was a major problem in American cities. From pervasive smog to oil spills to rivers catching on fire, the decade ended on a dismal note. As activists began emphasizing the role corporations were playing in perpetuating pollution, KAB knew it needed to change its narrative.

The Ad Council hired a new agency, Marsteller, to design the Crying Indian campaign, hoping to tap into feelings of exasperation over the environmental crisis while continuing to divert attention away from industry. The vice president of Marsteller at the time told the Ad Council:

The problem... was the attitude and the thinking of individual Americans. They considered everyone else but themselves as polluters. Also, they never correlated pollution with litter... The "mind-set" of the public had to be overcome. The objective of the advertising, therefore, would be to show that polluters are people - no matter where they are, in industry or on a picnic.

With the Crying Indian commercial, KAB was able to drive home the idea that individuals are the source for the emerging environmental catastrophes. As the commercial ends, focusing in on the tear on the man's face, a narrator sadly announces: "People start pollution. People can stop it."

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Photo: White House Photographers/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain
The Actor Who Starred In The Commercial, Iron Eyes Cody, Was Italian American, Not Native American

Adding to the campaign's artifice is the fact that the actor who played the Crying Indian was, in fact, an Italian American born Espera Oscar DeCorti. An established Hollywood actor who portrayed Native Americans in westerns, DeCorti adopted the name Iron Eyes Cody, wore a wig, and donned Native American costuming. 

DeCorti "passed" as Native American on and off screen, appearing in public as Iron Eyes Cody. The use of a non-Native actor shows that KAB did not care about investing in the truth; it was interested in using the visual symbol of a crying Native American man to protect its interests. Even the tear on DeCorti's cheek was fake. The effect was created with the help of glycerin.