On Nov. 9, 1976, a local story from Washington, D.C., managed to land in newspapers across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Smokey the Bear, age 26, had died at the National Zoo. He’d gone, the obituary read, to “that great honey tree in the sky.”
That was 43 years ago, but it was not the end of Smokey. The black bear who died at the zoo was a real-life casting of a character who’d existed even longer. In fact, Smokey is the star of the longest-running public service campaign in American history. He turns 75 this summer.
“Smokey Bear [is] truly a beloved icon that we’ve seen stand the test of time,” said Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council. “As new modes of communication, social media and technology have developed, Smokey has adapted and embraced them, giving him a voice that has extended well beyond the realm of traditional advertising.”
Given that human beings were the cause of most of last year’s devastating wildfires in California, Smokey’s message is arguably more relevant than ever. But 75 years ago, it was another kind of disaster that led to the creation of Smokey: World War II.
In the fraught weeks following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, fears that Japanese incendiary bombs would ignite the lush forests of the West Coast led to a broader campaign to prevent forest fires. At the behest of the U.S. Forest Service, the War Advertising Council (today’s Ad Council) joined forces with Foote, Cone & Belding to create a campaign about fire prevention—a critical mission, given how many young firefighters had been sent off to war.
FCB decided a cute woodland creature would do a fine job in conveying the message about being careful with matches. At first, the agency co-opted Bambi, putting the famous Disney fawn on posters captioned with: “Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless.” When Bambi’s contract expired in 1944, commercial artist Albert Staehle drew a replacement—a bear, dressed in ranger garb, named Smokey. Pictured pouring water over a campfire, Smokey was burly but friendly and quickly became popular.
Meanwhile, a real-life Smokey wandered into the picture in a tragically fitting way. In May 1950, a fire in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest left an injured cub stranded in a blackened tree. The Forest Service took him in, named him Smokey, and moved him to Washington’s National Zoo, where the bear dined on peanut butter sandwiches and received mail stuffed with honey and cash. Smokey’s plight was a validation for his message, the famous one that FCB had given him in 1947: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
That motto has since become one of the most enduring advertising slogans ever written. “Generations of families have grown up with Smokey’s catchphrase,” Sherman said. “It’s a part of the cultural lexicon.” The line’s memorability has also permitted it to evolve. In 2001, Smokey’s keepers updated his acclamation to “Only you can prevent wildfires,” a tweak meant to clarify the bear’s mission of preventing “unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires versus prescribed fires,” to quote Forest Service literature. And just last month, the Ad Council released Smokey’s 75th anniversary campaign, featuring Al Roker and Stephen Colbert voicing an animoji of Smokey.
But even as digital technology has allowed Smokey to remain timeless and vigorous, the real-life bear still has his fans. They can visit him even now at Smokey Bear Historic Park in New Mexico, where his remains lie beneath a bronze plaque.