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Friday, April 19, 2024

The cultural history of Smokey Bear

The U.S.A.’s most recognizable federal icon


By SAVANNAH BURGER—arts@theaggie.org


Smokey Bear is one of the most well-known federal mascots in United States history. With the icon turning 80 this year, U.S. citizens have been seeing, listening and reading about Smokey Bear for nearly eight decades. Almost everybody knows his famous line, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” But what most people don’t know is that this wasn’t always his slogan. In fact, “wildfires” was only changed from “forest fires” by the Ad Council in 2001. The reason for this amendment has to do with everything Smokey has represented –– all the way back to the 1940s.

Not many are aware that Smokey Bear actually started as a wartime advertisement. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the U.S.’s entrance into World War II, government officials were worried about forest fires distracting American troops from the war effort — they regarded forest fires as a separate, naturalistic home-front war that threatened national security. 

In 1942, the U.S. Forest Service and War Advertising Council approved a campaign to bring nationwide attention to forest fire prevention, distributing posters that had messages such as, “FOREST DEFENSE IS NATIONAL DEFENSE.” In the same year, Disney’s “Bambi” was released, and the corporation temporarily lent the image of Bambi and friends to the U.S. Forest Service to use in their forest fire prevention campaign. The U.S. Forest Service would soon need their own mascot to use for branding.

On Aug. 9, 1944, after an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council, Smokey Bear was approved as the official symbol for the forest fire suppression campaign and was featured visually for the first time on a poster. The poster depicted Smokey, a brown bear dressed in blue dungarees and a ranger hat, bending over and pouring a bucket of water on a campfire while glaring at the person looking at the illustration. Underneath, a caption reads, “SMOKEY SAYS — Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” This was only the beginning of Smokey Bear’s journey in the public eye.

Spreading like wildfire, Smokey Bear quickly made himself known across the country through hundreds of thousands of books, pamphlets, toys, posters, stamps and radio broadcast public service announcements (PSAs) that started in the 1950s. In the radio broadcasts, Smokey would be introduced by the song “Smokey the Bear,” written by the same songwriting duo behind “Frosty the Snowman”: Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins. 

Though their piece became Smokey’s official song, it spurred confusion over the character’s name. In the popularized song, it was sung as “Smokey the Bear” to be consistent with the rhythm. Officially, however, his name is just “Smokey Bear,” without a “the.” The 1950s solidified Smokey’s design — it wasn’t until this decade that Smokey’s hat and belt had his name printed on them; before, they had been blank.

In 1950, a lone black bear cub was recovered from a violent forest fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Firefighters found him clutching to a tree with severe burns on his body. They named him Smokey Bear after the character, and the cub was later moved to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. There, multiple senators, forest service officials and other dignitaries met Smokey, and he was officially recognized as the living symbol of Smokey Bear and the forest fire prevention campaign. 

The live Smokey Bear became wildly beloved and popular across the country, and he received so much fan mail that, in 1964, he was issued his own zip code: 20252. Smokey Bear is the only American to have their own unique zip code other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The 34th president between 1953 and 1961 was an outspoken supporter of Smokey and has been photographed holding Smokey Bear merchandise.

The first Smokey Bear commercials aired in the United States in the 1960s, featuring cartoons of the character and popular television hosts verbalizing their support for the campaign. All the while, Smokey Bear’s image and branding were plastered on anything related to the forest service, ranging from training pamphlets to junior forest ranger kits. His campaign continued throughout the decades, with more commercials and new billboards going up starting in the 2010s. 

Although the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention Campaign is the longest continuing PSA campaign in United States history, there have been modifications to Smokey Bear’s approach. In the last two decades, professionals specializing in fire science have found evidence that 100% fire suppression is much more damaging to the environment than not. If forest fires are not allowed to burn naturally in fire-adapted ecosystems, forests will grow abnormally thick, becoming the perfect conduit for huge, violent and unpredictable fires. 

Without human intervention, forest fires are supposed to burn through environments periodically. If the environment is not overgrown, these forest fires will commonly be low-intensity burners that will clear out the forest floor of dead and decaying materials. This cleanse also supplies specific nutrients to the environment, along with providing certain animals and plants with ecological benefits only available to them after burns. For example, the California state tree, the coastal redwood, is reliant on fires for seedling reproduction.

Because of these scientific findings, Smokey’s call for the suppression of all forest fires turned out to be the wrong message. This is why we now hear Smokey say, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” as by no means should every forest fire be stopped. Out-of-hand wildfires, however, like the countless that California has weathered in the last decade, should indeed be prevented. They’re still a massive problem — nearly 85% of wildfires today are started due to human negligence, according to the National Parks Service. In addition to this, in 2023, the National Interagency Fire Center recorded 50,697 wildfires initiated by human activity.

Now that his message has been revamped, Smokey has also had to adjust to a world dominated by social media. In recent years, Smokey Bear has focused his campaign on popular platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. While he still retains his original design in many other ads and merchandise, he is now frequently represented on social media with an originally designed Animoji. His imagery now appeals to both older and younger audiences. 

Smokey Bear, the American icon that is shared by multiple generations, is still going strong into the eighth decade of his PSA. Don’t forget to celebrate his 80th birthday on Aug. 4!

Written by: Savannah Burger — arts@theaggie.org


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