Smokey Bear turns 77 today, August 9th, 2021. His Ad Council Wildfire Prevention campaign in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters is the longest running public service campaign in history. Smokey and his iconic catchphrase “Only you can prevent wildfires” have become immediately recognizable in American culture. Let’s revisit Smokey’s start in 1944 and examine his journey as an ever-evolving advertising icon.
1944: Smokey Bear is Born
Smokey Bear’s association with wildfires originates from World War II, when there was concern that shell attacks on U.S. soil would cause forest fires. In response, the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention program was created to encourage Americans to practice proper fire safety procedures. These efforts culminated in the creation of Smokey Bear in 1944; the first poster was published on October 10th and depicted Smokey extinguishing a campfire with a bucket of water. The use of a gentle bear as the face of the forest fire prevention campaign quickly created a lasting connection for the American public, as it served as a direct reminder of the helpless animals that suffer from the carelessness of humans. In 1952, Smokey’s image was placed under the control of the Department of Agriculture and royalties from his campaigns were used to fund continued wildfire education.
Smokey in the 1940s-50s
Smokey’s posters in the 1940s-1950s displayed reminders of the ways we can prevent forest fires, such as ensuring matches are properly extinguished and spreading water over campfires. These educational service announcements continue today in his campaign videos that include displays of proper fire safety.
While some of his early posters took a more passive approach in requesting people pay careful attention to their fire prevention activities, advertisements in the 1950s took a more direct approach with taglines such as “Promise you will prevent forest fires” and “Pledge your help, prevent forest fires” on stamps. These messages inspire a greater sense of personal responsibility to join Smokey’s efforts in preventing wildfires. Subsequent posters in which Smokey thanks his audience for listening and following wildfire safety guidance also help strengthen the relationship Smokey has with the public.
Smokey in the 1960s-70s
The 1960s saw the introduction of the first Smokey Bear television ads. By the 1970s, television commercials had replaced posters and radio ads as the primary platform for Smokey to spread his fire safety message to the American people. The 1970s also saw a significant change in the way Smokey was portrayed in print ads. While earlier ads frequently portrayed a full body image of Smokey with humanized features (such as his clearly-defined hands rather than paws and his well-recognized denim jeans), posters in the 1970s primarily portrayed only his face. This trend continued all the way through the 1990s, until a return to more classic Smokey imagery was invoked in the 2010s.
Smokey in the 2000s
The most significant changes to the Wildfire Prevention campaign occurred in the 2000s. Smokey’s slogan evolved in 2001 to “Only you can prevent wildfires” in recognition of the fact that failure to adhere to fire safety guidelines can cause irreversible harm not only to forest environments, but to other ecosystems.
Using the word “wildfire” helped clarify that Smokey is only trying to have people prevent unwanted human-caused wildfires while still supporting the use of prescribed fire, or controlled burning, by professionals within forests.
The print campaigns were also updated as many did not feature Smokey Bear as the prominent image; instead, other associated images such as forests, shovels, matches, etc. were used to promote wildfire awareness and a small image of Smokey’s head was relegated to the top or bottom of the print media. However, the nostalgic iconic imagery of Smokey in his blue jeans that started back in the 1940s soon reemerged in the 2010s.
The core elements of Smokey’s brand include educating the public and developing strong connections with individuals to effect change and promote responsible behaviors. While these fundamental concepts remain unchanged since Smokey’s introduction in the 1940s, new marketing tools including a strong video presence, promotion via influencers and celebrities, and the use of social media platforms to connect quickly and effectively with a vast audience have enhanced Smokey’s brand and outreach. The cost effectiveness of and access to social media and the facility with which social media can be customized has allowed the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign to target those who live near wildland areas that are more prone to wildfires and outdoor enthusiasts/campers.
Smokey is also now able to appeal to a more diverse audience, with messaging available in Spanish and spokespeople such as Al Roker and Betty White representing broader demographics.
Today Smokey has his own website: https://smokeybear.com/en and verified social media presence: Twitter: @smokey_bear; Instagram: @smokeybear; YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/Smokeybear. He has used a variety of messaging angles to inform the U.S. audience of the dangers of wildfires and the responsibility we all have to be cognizant of fire safety. This includes Smokey Bear resources specifically targeted towards educating children, such as coloring books, computer games, and educator guides.
As the majority of wildfires today are caused by humans, Smokey’s message about the importance of practicing fire safety measures remains as important today as it was in 1944.