The Birth of Smokey Bear
Few people know, above McGruff the Crime Dog, Smokey Bear was the longest running, most recognizable figure in a public service announcement (PSA) of all time.
The day the U.S. first met Smokey was August 9, 1944, but his story started long before that.
At the time, folks called the Ad Council the Wartime Advertising Council. That team, along with the Association of State Foresters, created the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) Program, aimed at curbing forest fires.
Their first attempts were about the same tone as posters intended to tempt young men to enlist. None of ’em was half as effective as the Smokey Bear campaign.
By the way… it’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear. The former is a song title, so written because of time signature. Adding the word the lent the lyrics better rhythm.
The real Smokey was not only the most successful PSA of all time, he was a perfect combination of tragedy and timing, which gave birth to a legend.
It Took a Tragedy
When the Japanese surfaced two submarines off the coast of California in the spring of 1942, it wasn’t long after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
What followed was a barrage of shells on an oil field near Santa Barbara, not far from the Los Padres National Forest. Who could believe the Japanese had attacked the U.S. on her shores again, nearly burning down a national forest in the process?
The nation already had a problem with citizens accidentally burning down national forests. We didn’t need the help of the enemy. The data at the time showed that nine out of ten forest fires started not from Japanese sub attacks, but from careless citizens.
Now, on top of that, the U.S. had to worry about attacks from foreign states. The U.S. needed a plan to reduce forest fires by any means.
There had been a 1939 campaign to curb the fires, which didn’t go so well. Those posters depicted a very Uncle Sam-like forest ranger pointing to a forest fire.
The caption on the posters read, Your Forest, Your Fault, Your Loss. People don’t like accusations much, especially those from Uncle Sam. They do, however, love cute things… like forest animals and stuff.
And a Legendary Tale
Most kids learn Smokey’s tale as a matter of fact, not legend. He’s a bear who stands on two legs like a human, wears jeans, a ranger hat, a carries a shovel.
To better imprint his message on the minds of children, firefighters tell classrooms of children that Smokey was a bear cub discovered in a tree after a forest burned in New Mexico in 1950. The fire had burned the bear cub, but he survived and became Smokey Bear. It’s a true story, but one that took place after the creation of Smokey Bear.
Children imagine the bear cub growing up this determined foe of forest fires as if there is a real talking bear behind the PSAs. It’s a legend told like Santa Claus, a white lie which bears some truth.
Like there was a bishop in Turkey named Nicholas, who became St. Nick and eventually Santa Claus, there was a real bear named Smokey. Who cares if he came after the Ad Council created the fictional version?
The First Version
Smokey came out of the Ad Council, blazing. (Bad choice of words, sorry.) His first slogan wasn’t much better than the condescending Uncle Sam poster. Initially, it read, “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.”
The CFFP had run a successful campaign about forest fires before Smokey, not the Uncle Sam one, but another one with cute forest animals. The problem with that campaign is they didn’t own the images.
When Disney produced the movie “Bambi,” starring the baby deer whose parents died in a forest fire, for a minute they used Bambi under license to make posters about forest fires.
The slogan read of that campaign, Please Mister, don’t be careless. Sure, it was sexist (and probably true to suggest that men were behind most of the forest fires), but what they didn’t see coming was how the public would respond to a cute animal asking folks to be careful.
People loved Bambi, but the Ad Council had to find a permanent solution, one that could belong to the Forest Service exclusively.
They hired an artist to paint a poster of a cartoon bear named Smokey, dumping water on a camp fire. By 1947, Smokey bear stopped quoting statistics, and started saying, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
The Ad Council hired a man named Jackson Weaver, a recognized radio personality of the time, to voice Smokey for commercials.
Like a good marketing company, they continued to develop the image and legend of Smokey, spreading his message in media and schools, until the nation accepted him like a symbol of America.
Today, according to the Ad Council, 95 percent of adults, and 77 percent of children recognize Smokey. Most still believe the 1950 origin story of the bear cub, even though they’re sure Santa Claus is a fraud.
Perhaps Santa should hire the Ad Council…