2024-04-14 11:29:29

The following post was written partly with the help of generative AI tools.

For decades, public service announcements (PSAs) have harnessed the power of media to educate the public on pressing issues. These succinct and compelling messages aim to shift attitudes and prompt action, often becoming cultural touchstones that reflect and shape societal values and behaviors.

Some of the most enduring and memorable PSAs of the 20th century focused on controlling litter on America's public highways and lands.  Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, environmental PSAs encouraged Americans to take personal responsibility for the cleanliness of public areas—and warned them of the dangers of carelessly tossing plastics, chemicals, and cigarette butts.

In this blog post, we'll take a look at four classic environmental PSAs that had a lasting impact on how Americans think about litter—for better and worse.

1. "Careless Killers", 1968

Featuring Rod Serling—writer, producer, and host of The Twilight Zone—this PSA ran at the height of the sci-fi anthology show's national popularity.

Parodying one of Serling's well-known cold opening segments, the spot casts a typical American man as an unwitting killer for his part in starting a forest fire.

The spot suggests that, while dropping a cigarette butt on the ground may feel like a casual act, it is actually a very dangerous thing to do—as deadly as any of the murders Serling narrated on his TV programs.

2. "Crying Indian", 1971

This controversial PSA—retired in 2023 after the rights were transferred to the National Congress of American Indians—has been criticized for its stereotypical depiction of Native Americans and its use of an Italian-American actor in the starring role.

In addition, Keep America Beautiful, the organization sponsoring the video,  has been described as a "front group" for corporations with a vested interest in single-use packaging.

For all of its flaws, the Crying Indian campaign became a symbol of the growing environmental movement, and is still being referenced decades later. The campaign's tagline—"People start pollution. People can stop it."—set the tone for years of environmental policy that would emphasize individual responsibility over corporate accountability, encouraging Americans to use trash and recycling bins while ignoring the need for deeper changes in packaging practices.

3. "America the Ugly", 1973

Like other Ad Council campaigns under the Smokey Bear banner, "America the Ugly" uses a deep understanding of American iconography to tell a powerful story with a single image.

Red, white, and blue matches are arranged in a pattern that calls to mind both the American flag and the shape of the continental United States. With Samuel A. Ward's "America the Beautiful" playing in the background, the PSA serves up a heaping helping of American symbolism.

Then, a single dropped match ignites the entire picture.

Smoke pours from between the upright matchsticks. Fire leaps into the air, reaching for the viewer. In seconds, the USA transforms from a bright spread of color to a seared gray lump.

The message is clear: American natural beauty is put at risk every time someone disposes of flaming litter in an irresponsible way. Like "Careless Killers," this PSA uses known cultural touchstones to communicate important information about  environmental stewardship.

4. "Don't Mess with Texas", 1986-Present

Launched in 1986 on the back of Texas music legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, the "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign connected environmental stewardship with Texan pride of place.

The initial spot—and the dozens that would follow—used Texas celebrities to spread the word about litter prevention in the Lone Star State, particularly along highways. At almost forty years old, the campaign is credited with reducing litter in Texas by a whopping 72%. Moreover, the "Don't Mess with Texas" tagline has taken on a life of its own, morphing into a nationally recognized catchphrase.

 

For more than half a century, American environmental PSAs have urged individuals to fight environmental degradation by taking responsibility for their own waste management. 

While such messaging has come under fire in recent years for de-emphasizing the role of corporate production in the environmental crisis, these PSAs have had a major impact on the way Americans think about their relationship to their trash and the surrounding environment. 

They remain a part of our collective memory, and inform our conversations about material waste to this day.