Smokey Turns 60, But His Message Is Modern

Few know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service's Smokey Bear has turned 60 years old, a successful mascot for arguably the longest-running public service ad campaign in U.S. history.

In honor of the anniversary, the Advertising Council Inc. broke a set of television, radio, outdoor and print ads designed to prevent and to decrease the number of human-caused wildfires. Foote, Cone & Belding Southern California, Irvine, CA, created the pro bono ads, as it has done for six decades.

The ads call attention to a revamped Web site, Ruder Finn, New York, created the site that is now crucial to the campaign and Smokey's message of personal responsibility in reducing forest wildfires.

“We've had more than 25,000 downloads of the teachers guide from the Web site in just the past couple of years,” said Ellyn Fisher, director of corporate communications at the Ad Council, New York. “Also, Smokey continues to receive hundreds of e-mails and letters from children and adults throughout the country.

“I don't think all advertising icons from years ago still resonate, but Smokey certainly does. His message is contemporary and impactful.”

Since his birth Aug. 9, 1944, Smokey has become the public face of efforts to conserve and protect the nation's forests. The Forest Service claims Smokey's message about forest fire prevention has helped lower the number of acres lost yearly to forest fires or wildfires from 22 million in 1944 to 5 million in 2003.

“One of the things we've noticed over the years looking at the statistics is that fires caused by children and fires caused by smoking are very low,” said Lou Southard, branch chief for fire prevention at the Forest Service, Washington. “What we're looking at today … is that fires that are resulting from people abandoning campfires on federal lands are increasing. So for the last few years, we've been directing Smokey's message toward campfire use.”

That shift in focus is evident on The home page displays the tagline and new mission: “Only you can prevent wildfires.” The tagline until 2002 was, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Once online, visitors can view the four latest TV commercials running on donated time. One 15-second spot plays the “Happy Birthday” tune as Smokey's hand extinguishes the candle flame on the cake.

The site also is the doorway to three subsites. One, called Smokey Kids, links to games, stories and fun things to do for children. Only You draws attention to information on wildfires, people who fight them and how citizens can prevent them. Smokey's Vault is a repository of the icon's history and imagery.

Beyond that are sections on education and design resources as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

“More and more, especially with public service campaigns, a lot of the issues tend to be complex — it's not the thing that can be effectively communicated in a 30- or 60-second spot,” said Brad McCormick, senior producer at Ruder Finn.

Almost every public service announcement commissioned by the Ad Council — an ad industry nonprofit that produces ads for social issues — directs viewers, readers and listeners to a Web address. Many of these ads use icons like Smokey, McGruff the Crime Dog and Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies.

“The Web site keeps things relevant,” said Jon Tracosas, president of Foote, Cone & Belding Southern California. “One of the things we've done is understand the sophistication of the audience. The Web helps to get the audience to see the message in a different way. From our point of view it's generational — which generation of folks is next going to carry the torch.”

Along with the interactive and general ad agencies involved, the ads also rely on the generosity of media owners. More than $1 billion in donated media time and space has supported Smokey's campaign over six decades.

Foote, Cone & Belding has handled the Forest Service account since 1942, two years before Smokey was created. The icon began as a poster bear, much like a piece of art. He was depicted as a brown bear. Then, in the 1950s, the Forest Service found a small black bear cub. He was quickly named Smokey and became the face of the Forest Service.

“So he can be black or brown,” Southard said. “Most of the time he's depicted as a brown bear. We've also been asked if Smokey's right-handed or left-handed. He's ambidextrous.”

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