Why We Need to Bring Back the Anti-Pollution Advertising Campaigns of the '70s

Americans are trashy, and I don't just mean reality TV families. 

On any given day, I'll find litter on the street in front of my house that was thoughtlessly discarded by a passing driver, usually during the evening. At first it used to be a beer bottle or two (drinking while driving is a whole new low onto itself) but now I find fast food bags and containers, plastic bags, coffee cups, beer boxes (they drank an entire six-pack behind the wheel?), juice containers, and snack food wrappers and boxes among other items -- the variety would make Oscar the Grouch have an orgasm. 

Mind you, this doesn't happen every day. But it does happen often enough, and to our neighbors, that it makes me wish I could hurl the garbage back at the offender's car if only they would drive by again and I had superhero powers to identify the guilty party. 

Pretty soon most of the country is going to be covered with snow, and we're going to forget about the litter problem for a few months. But come springtime and melting, everything that got tossed will be re-exposed...and it sure is an ugly sight, especially in the barren, limbo month known as March before the trees have blossomed and the grass turns green again. 

Some say our disregard for clean spaces has its origins in the 1960s. One of the more shocking moments of Mad Men for me personally -- (even moreso than the gory foot-amputation-by-John-Deere scene) was the dirty (no pun intended) revelation that Don and Betty Draper were litterbugs. I think it was during season 2 that we saw the Draper family enjoying a picnic in a nice local park when at the end of the afternoon, Don pitches his empty beer can like he's Randy Johnson, and Betty simply lifts up their blanket, dumping their food leftovers and paper plates all over the ground. They check the kids' hands to make sure they're not dirty (hypocrites!) then drive away like it was no big deal. Here's that scene again, in case you want to take a trip down memory lane:

Gah! (As an aside, how cute was Sally (Kiernan Shipka) back then? I had forgotten how little she was when the show started.) 

Apparently it was this kind of behavior plus the surplus of discarded cigarettes everywhere that eventually led to anti-pollution movements in the 1970s. (Although personally, if you ask people who actually lived during the Mad Men generation, they'd probably tell you that littering is a worse problem today.)

Woodsy Owl and Iron Eyes Cody (aka "the Crying Indian"...and by the way, he was really Italian, not Native American) became the icons for a cleaner America during the decade. 

But it didn't last. The proof is in the trash I constantly see on the streets, wherever I drive and when I used to take a lunchtime walk near the office park where I once worked, there was one wooded area next to the sidewalk that was just a dumping ground for passerby. There's really no excuse for it. Is it due to laziness? Ignorance? The need to free their hands so they can use their mobile phones while walking? I know the world is struggling with a lot of heavy problems right now and trash is the least of our issues, but we really need to bring back some PSAs to remind people to use trash receptacles. We especially need it more than ever with so much plastic and dangerous materials getting dumped on the ground or in the oceans, which endangers wildlife. 

And sadly, this is mostly an American thing, at least compared to our European counterparts. A friend of my mother who travelled to Italy and Austria earlier this year marveled at how tidy and clean the public spaces were.  I can confirm that England was the same way when I took a vacation there a few years ago. The London streets and tube stations were spotless. It was even more amazing to me once I realized they don't really have a surplus of trash bins everywhere; most of them were taken away years ago to prevent the IRA from planting bombs in them. Yards were spotless, particularly in the village of Bath. Did I see any trash on the ground outside the Abbey Road studio? Hell to the no! The Europeans take so much more pride in their public spaces, it seems. Even while watching one of the travel shows on PBS, you won't notice much rubbish on the ground. 

So, here's hoping that maybe, just maybe, this post will inspire someone out there who litters to change their ways...to wait until they're home to empty their beer cans into their own trash or recycling bin, or seek out a trash can for their empty Starbucks cup. 

And if you need some inspiration, here's some PSAs that were aired on TV back in the day. Really, if the infamous, powerful image of that crying Indian doesn't pull at your heartstrings and inspire you not to litter, you may be missing a soul. 

Go retro, folks. Dispose of your trash properly and responsibly. It really doesn't take much work. 


  1. Littering is one of my big pet peeves too, Pam. I even sort of resent "Earth Day", as I find it so hypocritical that people claim to be so concerned about the environment for that one day each year, while so casually tossing their trash on the ground the other 364 days!

  2. Pete, I'm a little surprised to hear that littering is a problem up in the Great White North -- I've always thought of cities like Toronto and Quebec to have a cultured European influence. Thanks for the comment...definitely a pet peeve!

  3. Your description of London reminds me of an experiment they've recently tried on the subways here in NYC: by taking out the trash cans in certain stations, it's forced passengers to take their litter with them when they leave the trains. Seems counterintuitive, but there have been signs of progress. Not sure how that would work on a larger scale though...

  4. Pam, very interesting that you mention that particular picnic on 'Mad Men'--the first time I saw that episode, I thought "Omigod that's just how it was!" I was a kid in the 1960s, and I remember LOTS of trash everywhere--we had relatives 50 miles north in the city, and it was nothing to see people tossing their crap out the window on the highways, the sides of the road were always covered in it. And of course, thousands of cigarette butts everywhere.

    Anyway I really liked your post & you're right, they should bring back those awesome 'give a hoot don't pollute' commercials, billboards, etc--but I'm telling you, comparing now to then, it's a WORLD of difference.

  5. PS. Hey I've been reading your personal blog too--I think that's great, I always enjoyed your other personal blog & was sorry to see it go. Nice job!!

  6. Doug - wow, I'm flabberghasted to hear that's how it really was in the '60s. I remember a story my mother has told me more than once about riding in the car with my oldest sister when she was younger...this was probably during the '70s. My sister rolled down the window, I think while they were on the highway, and chucked out a fast food bag of trash. My mom was so upset, and my sister sure got a tongue lashing that day! My parents didn't raise my siblings and me to be that way, so I'm guessing my sister picked it up from her peers at the time and because everyone else was doing it.

    And I'm delighted to hear that some Go Retro-ers have been reading the new blog and enjoying it. Thanks so much.

  7. Rich - thanks for your comment; that's very interesting about NYC.

  8. I recently purchased a Woodsy Owl Little Golden Book at a large garage sale for a quarter. I gave it to my little nephew, but I don't think it meant as much to him as it did me because he had no clue who Woodsy was.


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