In 1944, Smokey Bear made his debut in a new PSA ad campaign from the USDA Forest Service, Ad Council, and National Association of State Foresters (NASF) in partnership with ad agency FCB. Designed by USFS employee Rudolph Wendelin, Smokey wore a ranger’s hat and belted blue jeans. He carried a shovel in one paw. Three years later in 1947, he introduced a powerful slogan — “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
Smokey At 75
Today, Smokey Bear turns 75-years-old. His slogan has since been revised to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” but little else has changed for this icon. He’s one of the nation’s most recognizable bears, and has the longest running public service initiative in United States history. In 2014, Smokey Bear was inducted into the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame.
Smokey’s legacy as a wildfire prevention symbol only continues to become increasingly relevant in a world facing widespread climate change. His latest PSA campaign features celebrity friends like Stephen Colbert, Al Roker, and Jeff Foxworthy lending their voices to Smokey (famously voiced by actor Sam Elliott) to help him say more about his passion for wildfire prevention.
Aware of the millions of wildland acres that burn each year, Smokey continues to tirelessly promote a message of environmental conversation and protection to one and all. In celebration of this major milestone, we chatted with Lisa Sherman, President and CEO of the Ad Council. Sherman shares with us her very first memory of Smokey Bear, his new look as an animated emoji, and how “only you” can celebrate his big birthday today!
Happy 75th birthday to Smokey Bear! Do you remember the first time you heard about the icon?
I remember seeing and hearing Smokey Bear throughout my childhood. Whether it was seeing Smokey on a sign during a trip with my family to a national park or hearing “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires” in an advertisement, Smokey Bear has been a beloved figure for as long as I can remember.
But it wasn’t until about four years ago, when I first came to the Ad Council, that I fully realized Smokey’s profound impact on American culture and society. My appreciation for Smokey and his wildfire prevention message has grown immensely. What strikes me most is that his message is just as critical today as it was in 1944 when Smokey was created. I’m so proud to be part of the extraordinary coalition that the Ad Council, the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, in partnership with FCB, have created for our favorite bear. Smokey’s enduring legacy is a true testament to the importance of using our abilities, as marketers, for social good. When we come together, we have the power to create positive change in our own communities and across the country, generation after generation.
How do stars like Betty White, Stephen Colbert, Al Roker, and Jeff Foxworthy make Smokey relevant to the next generation?
Smokey Bear has been talking about wildfire prevention for 75 years. However, he can only say one thing: “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires.” That’s why we invited some of Smokey’s celebrity friends to say more about the issue on his behalf – why wildfire prevention is so crucial.
We wanted to prompt personal responsibility for preventing wildfires by tapping into the love that people have for being outside. Betty White, Stephen Colbert, Al Roker, and Jeff Foxworthy each feel passionately about protecting the great outdoors. These popular TV personalities appeal to diverse audiences. They were eager to lend their voices to spread Smokey’s wildfire prevention message.
Smokey is now in emoji form. How did you decide on emojis for his new campaign?
Smokey may be 75, but he’s tech savvy and has evolved with the times. As new modes of communication, social media and technology have developed, Smokey has adapted and embraced them. These platforms give him a voice that has extended well beyond the realm of traditional advertising. The animated emoji is no exception.
Using the latest facial recognition and mapping technology, we’ve created Smokey Bear’s first ever animated emoji. This allows his famous friends to lend their voices (and facial expressions) to the campaign in a modern, fun and unexpected way. That’s the magic of Smokey’s message. He’s evolved so much since 1944, but continues to instill a personal responsibility in all of us when it comes to the role we each play in preventing wildfires.
At 75, Smokey is dealing with climate change in unprecedented patterns. How is the Ad Council working to keep the conversation and awareness going?
Over the years, Smokey has transcended from advertising icon to a mainstream part of our culture. Our coalition of organizations — Ad Council, USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, with the pro-bono help of FCB — have worked together to build an extraordinary legacy for Smokey Bear, which is truly remarkable and unprecedented.
Smokey may be 75, but he has no plans on retiring any time soon. Rather, he’s going to continue to adapt. Much like the last 75 years, we expect the next 75 years (and longer) to see Smokey continue his mission of wildfire prevention, reaching people through new and traditional forms of media, even as his appearance may change with future trends. I’m excited to see what the Smokey Bear I know and love will look like when the nation celebrates his 80th, or even 100th, birthday!
Smokey Bear is a huge social media star! What kind of birthday wishes would you encourage fans to send him?
We encourage Smokey’s friends to wish him a happy birthday on social media using #SmokeyBear75 and #OnlyYou. Ultimately, the best birthday present anyone can give Smokey would be a commitment to being careful with fire outdoors. Visit SmokeyBear.com to learn more about what each and every one of us can do to prevent wildfires and help Smokey protect the great outdoors.