Most Americans are aware of Smokey Bear- although many of us wrongly call him Smokey the Bear, but more on that later. The mascot, by and large, has not been used as much in recent years, but he is still a piece of Americana, so despite fading a bit, he has not disappeared. People are at least aware of the fact that he was a cartoon bear meant as the mascot for a campaign centered around preventing forest fires. Plenty of people know that there was an actual bear cub that became associated with it. Beyond that, the details of the campaign, why it started, and how it changed are not exactly common knowledge.
I set out with this particular exploring piece with mostly basic knowledge about Smokey Bear. I remember the campaign from my childhood, much like many other people, and also remember learning that the living bear in question was from New Mexico. In fact, my family went to Capitan to visit the museum. Mostly I set out happy to look into Smokey because of the ties to New Mexico and my pride in this state. I will also admit to feeling more affinity to Smokey because of the connection to New Mexico. A lot of what I read while preparing for this was either new information or information I had forgotten, however.
The first thing that I learned (relearned?) is that Smokey is actually older than Smokey. Odd sentence aside, the Smokey Bear campaign started in 1944 as a direct result of World War II. As it stands, it is the longest-running PSA in America. The bear cub that was later named Smokey and made part of the PSA was rescued in 1950.
The origins of the campaign, as I said, were directly due to World War II. In 1942 the Japanese attacked an oil field that also happened to be right next to Los Padres National Forest. Soon people began to worry about the unanticipated consequences of the war, namely, in this case, forest fires. The War Advertising Council began doing a series of PSAs warning about forest fires. They were not great. They were eerie and also served as anti-Japanese propaganda.
After the war, the Forest Service realized that dark racist propaganda was not the way to go and decided to shift the campaign. They first teamed up with Disney to make a PSA with Bambi but realized that would also not work in the long run as Disney would always own, and thus control, the character. They did like the cartoon nature of the Bambi PSAs and liked that it was a message that could reach all ages.
Thus Smokey Bear was born. He was cute, wore blue jeans, and was the centerpiece of approachable messages about how people can prevent forest fires. Over time Smokey’s image changed a little more, including images of him carrying around a shovel and evoking the idea of him being a protector and helper too.
In the spring of 1950, a major wildfire was sighted in the forest surrounding Capitan New Mexico. Word got out, and crews from New Mexico and Texas came to battle the fire. A small bear cub and approximately 30 wildfires were facing a particularly nasty part of the fire. The fighters had to take refuge in a rockslide while a bear cub climbed high up in a tree. The cub survived but was severely burned, and everyone assumed orphaned, as a mother bear would have come for her cub in such distress. A nearby rancher who was helping with the efforts agreed to take the cub in, but soon a ranger stepped in and got it on a plane to Santa Fe to be treated.
The story about the cub spread fairly quickly. It was a great “human” interest piece. It was tragic, but the cub was also brave and adorable. He was adopted by the National Zoo and became a living symbol for the Smokey Bear campaign. He lived in the zoo until 1976, when he died and was returned to Capitan to be buried.
Smokey is still an ongoing PSA, although there have been ebbs and flows with popularity over the decades. There have also been some adverse side effects of Smokey. Smokey’s tagline and message were initially about “forest fires” in general, vs. the now more commonly referred to as “wildfires.” The Smokey campaign was highly effective. It was an adorable bear, with real-life living cub victim, that ran for so long people would grow up with him. It had a massive impact, including that people became passionate about all fires.
We are now starting to come back to the knowledge that some fires are necessary. Wildfires are out of control fires caused by natural or unnatural sources, and must still be attacked. Controlled forest fires are needed for the ecosystem. There was a period where natural forest fires would break out and be under control, but people would still demand that it was put out, primarily due to the effectiveness of Smokey.
The campaign had to reshape after that, and again the term forest fire was replaced by wildfire. Also, if you visit Smokey’s website, there is a whole area dedicated to good and necessary fires while still highlighting the dangers and price of wildfires, especially those caused by human negligence.
Smokey is also still quite popular among celebrities and has been making a resurgence as far as merchandise, social media presence, as well as more active campaigns. It is a highly effective tool, and the length of the campaign does make an impact. He is also enduring because there is no time where he didn’t fit. He has changed over the years slightly, but more in the way his message is formulated while very little in messenger. There is something that works no matter the generation about a bear, designed in an approachable way, speaking mainly to children with a message about the importance of nature and our responsibility when interacting with it.
Oh, also, as mentioned at the start of this. Smokey “the” Bear was the result of many ads adding music and lyrics. Smokey the Bear works better rhythmically for music. As a result, he has been referred to that way fairly commonly by most people. However, officially outside lyrics, he is always Smokey Bear. Something I have been told many times but forget, and I even wrote out Smokey the Bear several times while working on this.
So there is some information on the two Smokeys. If you are curious, I would recommend the official website (https://smokeybear.com/en) as well as some other great resources on both of the bears. Also, if you are ever in New Mexico, I would say take some time and go to Capitan. You can not only learn about the campaign and the real-life bear that was tied to it but also pay your respects to a piece of American history that is still standing the test of time.