The Smokey Bear Phenomenon

Smokey 2The Smokey Bear campaign is 70 years old this year, and its power is reflected by the fact that anybody over the age of 4 knows who Smokey is and his favorite one liner: “Only you”. Smokey was born out of a fear for our natural resources.


World War II brought a concern that our forest resources might be attacked or sabotaged at a time when they were greatly needed. The U.S. Forest Service organized a fire prevention Program in 1942 to encourage citizens to make a personal effort to prevent forest fires. To help convey this message an organization called the War Advertising Council began a campaign that encouraged people to assist in the war effort by doing what they could to prevent forest fires. Timber was after all a primary commodity for many products used in warfare. In 1944 they produced a poster featuring the Walt Disney’s Bambi character. The success of this poster demonstrated that an animal of the forest was the best messenger to promote forest fire prevention.


On August 9, 1944 the Forest Service and the War Advertising Council introduced a bear as the campaign symbol. This bear was to be black or brown and his expression intelligent, appealing, and slightly quizzical. To look his part, he would wear a traditional campaign hat.   As the campaign grew Smoky reached out to Americans from posters, billboards, magazines, newspapers, and over the air from hundreds of broadcasting stations. Many corporations donated valuable advertising time and space. The result was a great success for the Smokey Bear symbol and a decrease in human-caused forest fires. Smokey’s fame snowballed from there.


In 1950 a burned bear cub survived a terrible forest fire in the Lincoln National Forest near Capitan, New Mexico. News of the bear won the love and admiration of the American public, and so many people mistakenly believe the cub was the original Smokey Bear. But in reality Smokey advertising was already 6 years old. After being nursed back to health, the cub was named Smokey and came to live at the National zoo in Washington D.C. as a living counterpart to the fire prevention program. The original Smoky died in 1976. I was in college studying forestry that year, and we all wore black armbands the week he died. That’s how powerful this symbol is.


Smokey continues to tell us to be careful, and his message is even more important now that many people are choosing to build homes in or near forests.   There is also the challenge of teaching the public that fire properly used can be a tool to improve some forests. “Prescribed fire” requires special knowledge and skill to carry out properly and safely. The forest continues to be an important resource for our nation, and the need to prevent wildfire and use prescribed fire is greater than ever. Remember: “Only you” can be careful out there.


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