WILLIAMS, Ariz. — Sporting his ranger flat hat and blue jean trousers, Smokey Bear has become more than a symbol for fire prevention — he’s become a national treasure.
The evolution of the campaign through the past 75 years has made Smokey Bear one of the most recognized icons in advertising history. According to a 2013 Ad Council survey, approximately 96 percent of people have heard of Smokey Bear, and 7 out of 10 adults were able to recall Smokey’s message of “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” The ad campaign to prevent wildfires is ranked among the Ad Council’s top ten campaigns.
How it began
The Smokey Bear of today is not entirely the same as the Smokey Bear of the past.
The initiative to create an ad campaign to help prevent wildfires began during World War II in response to Japanese submarines firing near an oil field near Los Padres National Forest in California.
Americans were stunned that the fighting had come so close to the mainland and with many men away fighting the war, people became concerned about how devastating a wildfire could be without anyone around to fight it. The threat of America’s lumber supply, which was needed for ships and guns in the war, also worried government officials.
The protection of the forests came to the forefront, and the U.S. Forest Service jumped into action to rally Americans to find ways to prevent forest fires. The Forest Service joined with the Ad Council to create a wildfire prevention public service advertising campaign.
Some of the first propaganda produced was a bit harrowing, with images depicting axis forces lighting American forests on fire. Some of the original posters had sinister renditions of Adolf Hitler and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo in front of raging forest fires with the slogan “Our Carelessness — Their Secret Weapon.”
The campaign shifted near the end of the war as the Forest Service wanted to continue to educate the public about fire prevention. Officials worked with Walt Disney to use Bambi as a symbol for fire prevention. Eventually Walt Disney wanted Bambi back, and the success with a cuddly animal as a fire prevention symbol led to the idea of using a bear.
In 1944, the Forest Service developed Smokey Bear, with artist Albert Staehle creating Smokey’s first likeness.
Smokey’s original catchphrase was “Smokey Says — Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.”
In the 1950s, numerous radio commercials came out with songs and commentary by Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers and Dale Robertson. The commercialized Smokey Bear began to grow which led to a trademark for the Secretary of Agriculture with royalties and fees collected for wildfire prevention education.
In the 1960s-1970s, more radio commercials were produced, along with postage stamps and more posters. Public service television commercials began to be produced and the motto “Smokey’s Friends Don’t Play with Matches” emerged.
In the 1980s–1990s, “Think before You Strike” become a consistent theme as television commercials became more sophisticated. Posters focused on the threat to wildlife and the famous catchphrase “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” to share that fires can occur in other natural areas besides forests.
Although Smokey’s image and catchphrases have changed over time, his message of fire prevention remains the same.