Iron-eyes

The Truth Behind an Iconic Ad

In 1971 a television advertisement hit the airwaves that continues to make waves overall. The Ad Council cites it as one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time”. The story behind it is more interesting than most realize. First off, it came from a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful and it launched on Earth Day. Think Hippies meet Madison Avenue. 

1971 was an amazing year and so many events express the environment of change that marked the release of Keep America Beautiful’s iconic ad:

  • Coke’s famous, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, commercial airs
  • Cigarette advertisements are banned on TV
  • Both “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar" premiered in New York
  • George Harrison releases "My Sweet Lord” and Don McLean’s puts out his 8+ minute version of "American Pie”
  • Pacifist action hero movie, “Billy Jack”, debuts (this holds a big clue for what follows).
  • “All in the Family” premieres on CBS featuring 1st toilet flush on TV

The commercial was dubbed “The Crying Indian,” and aired as a one-minute Public Service Announcement. It featured a Native American man paddling a canoe along a junk-infested river. Smog, pollution, and trash are evident in liberal amounts. He beaches his canoe on a plastic-plagued shore while a bag of garbage is hurled from a car window. The bag bursts open at his feet. 

The next shot is the money shot. The camera pans to the Indian’s cheerless face. Dramatically, a single tear rolls down his cheek. The ad was incredibly successful and I, as a six-year old, absolutely recall it and the associated emotions it fostered. I have long hated litter and graffiti and other unsightly blights on our society. Perhaps I owe that to “The Crying Indian”.

The commercial won two Clio awards, directly grew community involvement, and helped reduce litter by 88% across 38 states. The man who produced that tear went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody” and would later receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Estimates from the advertising community suggest his wise and soulful face has been viewed 14 billion times.

Zachary Crockett writing in Priceonomics proves that Iron Eyes was prolific long before the ad, “From 1930 to the late 1980s, Iron Eyes starred in a variety of Western films alongside the likes of John Wayne, Steve McQueen, and Ronald Reagan. Clad in headdresses and traditional garb, he portrayed Crazy Horse in Sitting Bull (1954), galloped through the plains in The Great Sioux Massacre (1965), and appeared in over 100 television programs. When major motion picture houses needed to verify the authenticity of tribal dances and attire, Iron Eyes was brought in as a consultant. He even provided the “ancestral chanting” on Joni Mitchell’s 1988 album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.”

Here is where the tale turns. In 1996, a journalist sought the man’s back story and discovered that Iron Eyes was actually a second-generation Italian. “He just left,” recalled his sister, Mae Abshire Duhon, “and the next thing we heard was that he had turned Indian.“ Iron Eyes Cody, or “Espera Oscar de Corti,” was born in a rural southwestern Louisiana town on April 3, 1904, the second of four children. His parents, Antonio de Corti and Francesca Salpietra had both emigrated from Sicily, Italy just a few years prior.

Young Oscar’s dad had abandoned his wife and one child while taking off with his three sons. In 1919, film producers cast Oscar as a Native American child in a film and that set off his alter ego and career. Decades later after this was revealed, Iron Eyes Cody refused to admit the truth. He continued to wear his braided wig, headdress, and moccasins, and was unrelenting in supporting the Native American community (the similarities to Canada’s Grey Owl or Archibald Belaney are amazing). He passed away in 1999 at the age of 94.

Hollywood, along with the Mad Men-era ad agencies that had profited from his image, colluded to maintain his image for some time. While the deception intrigues one cannot help but admire how this self-delusion resulted in one of the most recalled and effective advertisements of all time.

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