At 70 Years Young, Smokey Bear Is Still Hot

Since August 9, 1944, Smokey Bear has been spreading the word about wildfire prevention. The groups behind the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history credit Smokey’s continued success to his ability to adapt over time—and learn how to tweet.

A special birthday was celebrated across the country over the weekend: Smokey Bear, the face of an iconic wildfire-prevention public service announcement, turned 70 years young.

Since 1944, Smokey has appeared in television commercials, on billboards, and in person to deliver his famous message: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” It’s the longest-running PSA campaign in American history.

Smokey Bear is a character that is relatable and somewhat light-hearted, even though the message is very serious, and I think that that engages families.

Events held for Smokey Bear, a character based on a real bear cub found in a forest fire, ranged from poster contests to parties with flameless fanfare to the reopening of the Smokey Bear mailbox. And Smokey managed to make appearances at most of them.

While his only birthday wish likely was that we all learn how to properly put out a campfire, the organizations behind the campaign since the beginning—the National Association of State Foresters, U.S. Forest Service, and the Ad Council—decided to do something special for their timeless mascot.

“There’s been a new look for Smokey, something to usher him into the modern era,” said Amanda Cooke, communications director at NASF. “A couple years ago, Smokey made his first foray into the social media world (@smokey_bear), and more recently we’ve updated his appearance to broaden his appeal to a wider audience.”

In May, the groups launched a fresh campaign that shows Smokey awarding “bear hugs” for safe fire practices. Several 30-second spots were created to help with the push.

So how does a 70-year-old bear remain relevant after all this time?

“His is a timeless message,” said Jay Farrell, CAE, NASF’s executive director. “Smokey Bear is a character that is relatable and somewhat light-hearted, even though the message is very serious, and I think that that engages families. It’s something more than just a professional firefighter’s message to campers.”

Cooke added that Smokey’s ability to adapt over time has been crucial to his sustained success.

“The campaign isn’t afraid of change,” she said. “Smokey has evolved throughout the years as the demographic changes, as the message needs to change. The emphasis of Smokey’s message is personal responsibility—that’s where the “Only you…” comes in, that’s where the bear hugs come from. You can make a difference with your simple actions.”

The next phase of the campaign, Farrell said, will probably be geared more toward urban dwellers.

“The idea there is that that’s where the population is,” he said. “Those are the people who head to the mountains and to the woods for recreation and maybe have summer homes. So Smokey will leverage his new communication channels and look to engage more people and help them recognize the role they play in wildfire prevention.”

A scene from a recent commercial honoring Smokey's 70th birthday. (YouTube screenshot)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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