Chances are if somebody approached you on the sidewalk and then pointed at you while exclaiming, “Remember, only you,” that you’d automatically respond: “can prevent forest fires.” Your response is the sign of an effective public service announcement that has helped to safeguard our nation’s forests and woodlands for more than three-quarters of a century.
The slogan, as we all know, is the signature catchphrase of Smokey Bear—the beloved cartoon protector of America’s forests. Ever since the mid-1940s, he’s been urging citizens to remain cognizant of their actions whenever they’re in the woods. He’s appeared in newspapers and magazines, on television and billboards, and has graced a seemingly infinite number of tchotchkes—all with the singular aim of preventing forest fires by educating people about the dangers of careless behavior.
But what’s lesser known is that the campaign against forest fires did not originally feature Smokey Bear. Instead, the campaign’s first incarnation painted a decidedly darker picture—owing to the fact that it was created during wartime, when people’s fears and anxieties took precedence over family-friendly messaging. Viewed together, the two approaches to the campaign present an interesting case study—as they showcase how (almost) the exact same message was propagated first during wartime, and then later during peacetime.
The campaign involved an array of different groups, including government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private advertising agencies, who all united under a common purpose for the benefit of the country. Though abridged for this article (trust me, this is the short version), the story of the campaign’s creation essentially unfolded like this.
On the evening of February 23, 1942, a series of bombshells rained down off the coast of Southern California—the first shelling of the mainland United States during World War II. The culprit, a Japanese submarine, intended to harm the country’s infrastructure by striking the Ellwood Oil Field. One oil well sustained damage and several orange grove trees ignited, leading to a small brush fire, but no serious harm came of the attack. Similar incidents occurred in Oregon during the ensuing months, as Japanese airplanes and submarines strategically bombed coastal forests and inland forest reserves.
These events came on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and intensified fears of the Axis powers’ ability to inflict damage on the United States homeland. Of particular concern were the nation’s vulnerable forests. The February bombing had taken place in close proximity to the famed Los Padres National Forest in California, while the others directly impacted forests in Oregon.
With the country immersed in the war effort, an unprecedented need existed for wood and wood products; therefore, anything that threatened lumber supplies posed a serious problem. To further complicate the issue, the majority of firefighters—and able-bodied men who could serve as volunteer firefighters—were overseas, engaged in a different type of battle. This left the nation’s forests exposed to both external and internal threats.
In response to the situation, the United States Department of Defense appointed William V. Mendenhall, Forest Service supervisor of the Los Angeles National Forest, to the position of Forest Defense Coordinator for the entire region. Mendenhall, driven by a sense of nationalism, immediately started formulating a plan. Fearing that the Japanese “could illuminate the whole West Coast by setting [the region’s] forests on fire,” Mendenhall persuaded Lord & Thomas—one of the world’s largest and most influential advertising agencies—to convene an emergency meeting with fellow advertisers, art directors, and Department of Defense staff.
The ideas set forth in this meeting led to the creation of the Wartime Forest Fire Prevention Program (WFFP), which aimed to convince people that protecting the nation’s forests was essential to the U.S. winning the war. To convey this message, the WFFP recruited the Wartime Advertising Council—a non-profit organization that was established in early 1942 by members of the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies in order to develop communications programs for significant public issues.
Together, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Forest Service, the WFFP, the Wartime Advertising Council, and the private ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding (formerly Lord & Thomas) worked to develop a campaign against forest fires.
The challenge confronting the group was immense. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, forests covered more than 700 million acres of United States land in 1940. And in 1941 alone, the year in which the country entered the war, an estimated 208,000 forest fires destroyed a total acreage the size of Ohio (roughly 30 million acres). Importantly, however, the U.S. Forest Service claimed that 90 percent of those fires originated due to people’s carelessness and could have been prevented—an encouraging sign for the group and its newfound mission.
Given the enormity of the task, the group determined that a concerted effort focused on the nation’s forests—as opposed to a specific region’s forests (e.g., the West Coast)—would yield the best results, as it’d be easier to establish a link between the overall health of United States forests and the success of the country’s war effort. It would also enable people across the nation to feel more personally invested in the campaign, as their preventive actions against forest fires would directly benefit the country during a critical time in its history.
One of the campaign’s first advertisements surfaced in The American Weekly newspaper in May of 1942, and showed a strapping man with an axe battling back a wolf-shaped forest fire. “Strike Down This Monster!” appeared in bright red type across the top of the ad, and the critical message of “Forest Fires Delay Victory” accompanied the background image—which showed a shipyard with a battleship, cannon, tank, and bombers. The bottom of the ad featured helpful tips on preventing forest fires, which ranged from the proper way to extinguish matches and cigarettes to how to put out a campfire so that it didn’t reignite.
The striking imagery served to arouse an immediate desire in the viewer to do everything possible to ensure that forest fires did not cause irreparable harm to the nation’s war effort (and, by extension, the nation itself). Furthermore, by detailing the ways in which people could assist in the battle against forest fires, the ad invited everybody to participate.
Shortly after the above ad was released, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service produced a six-and-a-half-minute-long educational film to complement the newly created print campaign. The purpose of the film was to elucidate the importance of wood—for both military and domestic uses—so that people would understand what was at stake.
The ad did not shy away from the harsh realities concerning forest fires; it identified ordinary citizens as being the most responsible for causing forest fires, and even went so far as to label them “public enemy number one” in that respect. Though the ad recognized that very few people knowingly damage forests, it admonished careless smokers and individuals “who are in too much of a hurry to put out that last spark of [their] campfire.”
Next, the ad showed how forest fires could impact the war effort. The example it gave featured workers from a U.S. munitions factory trying to put out a nearby forest fire. As they fought the blaze, the film’s narrator delivered a powerful statement that appealed to the public’s conscience:
“Instead of working on bombs, bombers, and bayonets, they are working day and night—perhaps for weeks—on this so unnecessary job brought on by your carelessness. Halting production, slowing up delivery of badly needed rifles and bullets, leaving our brothers and our sons and our husbands and our sweethearts who marched away so bravely to fight for us, now in their foxholes . . . without adequate means of defending themselves.”
At this point, with the viewer imbued with nationalistic fervor, the ad issued forth an inspiring call to action: “Yes, fires do slow up war production. What are you going to do about it?” The answer quickly presented itself, as the narrator boomed: “You are going to save the forests to help win the war.”
It was critical that the ad spoke directly to the viewer—asking questions and giving directives—as if the film had been made specifically for them. This tactic served to enhance the core message by providing a direct, personal connection between the viewer and the subject at hand. To further ensure that the message was not lost on anyone, “Wood for war. Wood for peace.” served as a refrain throughout the ad.
The campaign’s next print ads featured more explicit wartime imagery, and used stereotyped depictions of the Axis powers to drive the message home. In one, a Japanese soldier held a lit match while an inferno raged in the treed background. The match illuminated the soldier’s sinister smile, devilish hands, and beady eyes—as well as the star insignia emblazoned on his military cap (in case there was any doubt as to his allegiance). The top of the ad featured what would become the most popular slogan of this portion of the campaign: “Careless Matches Aid the Axis.” The bottom, instead of offering tips, simply stated: “PREVENT FOREST FIRES!” Upon seeing the advertisement, one of the fire prevention officers involved in the campaign mused that it had “a power of evil magnetism that draws and binds attention.”
As unsettling as that ad was, the follow-up almost certainly haunted the dreams of children and adults alike—for it showed fiendish caricatures of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo looming over a massive forest fire. The idea that careless behavior caused forest fires again received emphasis, with the message “OUR CARELESSNESS: Their Secret Weapon” appearing in white type beneath the imagery. Interestingly, this language suggested that anyone who caused a forest fire, even if they did so inadvertently, was complicit in aiding the enemy (a charge tantamount to treason).
In the middle of 1944, the group working on the campaign started formulating ideas for how to extend it beyond the war’s end. Many of the group’s advertisers worried that the campaign’s messaging and imagery were too frightening for children, and understood that a new “symbol” would be required once the war ended, so they set out to create something that was more appealing to a general audience.
In searching for a peacetime symbol for the campaign, the group explored several different options. First, they tried out Uncle Sam. But after producing just one poster, it became apparent that many people mistook him for the arsonist. And that would simply not do.
Next up was the fawn Bambi, from Disney’s popular film of the same name released just two years prior. Bambi seemed tailor-made for the campaign: He had lost his mother to a hunter and then barely escaped a man-made forest fire that destroyed his home. Plus, he had widespread appeal and instant name recognition. However, despite Bambi being used to great success on a handful of fire prevention posters, Disney ultimately refused to give rights permission to the group.
It was just as well that Disney refused, as it’d have been difficult to imagine a baby deer protecting our forests in the same way that the group’s next selection has done over the past seven decades.
According to official records, Smokey Bear first appeared in October of 1944. He was drawn by Albert Staehle, a famous cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post who also designed promotional posters. The group had commissioned Staehle to draw a bear because they believed that it’d be the perfect symbol for the campaign. The reason was several-fold: Bears are among the most powerful animals in existence, meaning that it could serve as a strong and convincing leader; bears can walk upright on two feet, meaning that it could more easily be humanized and be shown to engage in various fire prevention behaviors; and bears are natural inhabitants of the woods, meaning that it had a vested interest in keeping the nation’s forests safe.
Staehle initially drew the bear as per the specifications of Richard Hammett, then-director of the WFFP, which were as follows: “nose short, color black or brown, expression appealing, knowledgeable, quizzical, perhaps wearing a hat that typifies the outdoors and the woods.” These instructions indicate that, from the beginning, the group wanted the bear to appear friendly and approachable—in the hope of encouraging people of all ages to pay attention to the message. And requesting that the bear look intelligent played into the idea of it being established as an authority figure on the subject of forest fire prevention.
Staehle’s original image never entered the public sphere, as he amusingly neglected to draw pants on the bear. A Forest Service public relations officer later recalled: “Staehle had drawn a bare bear . . . most people were taken aback at the idea of a naked bear throwing water on a fire.” After all, the symbol had to be suitable for children. So, a pair of pants was added, and the illustration was used in the first poster featuring Smokey Bear.
The new symbol was named “Smokey Bear” in reference to Smoky Joe Martin, a New York City fire chief from the early 1900s who was renowned for his dedication to the job and for his ability to endure extreme conditions when fighting a fire. In the above poster ad, Smokey was depicted as a muscular bear wearing a park ranger hat (and some nicely fitted jeans) and dousing a campfire with a bucket of water. Importantly, Smokey was shown looking at the viewer out of the corner of his eye, with an expression reminiscent of a puppy dog, in an attempt to further connect with the audience. Smokey’s friendly demeanor ensured that, even without the message, viewers would have been able to understand that he was demonstrating one of the ways to prevent forest fires.
The ad’s message, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!”, referenced data from the U.S. Forest Service that showed how 90 percent of forest fires arose from careless human behavior and could easily be prevented. Underlining the word “will” emphasized how Smokey Bear felt certain that proper preventive actions would lead to a substantial decrease in forest fires. This confidence helped to attract greater interest in the campaign, as people are far more likely to participate in a cause if they know there’s at least some chance of success.
The campaign’s next print ad continued the purely educational approach of Smokey Bear. Here, he was shown standing next to a chalkboard with a pointer in his paw, teaching a young bear cub how to ensure that a match is fully extinguished. Just like in the previous ad, Smokey was looking directly at the viewer, despite the fact that he had a student in front of him. This, and the presence of a human hand on the chalkboard, created no doubt as to who Smokey was really instructing (i.e., the viewer).
The ad’s message, “Hold ‘til it’s cold . . . prevent forest fires,” was simple and direct so that everybody understood what was being discussed. It also rolled smoothly off the tongue, with a pleasant bit of rhyming (similar to the campaign’s previous wartime slogan of “Careless Matches Aid the Axis”), so that it could be quickly and easily repeated within a variety of advertising mediums.
Lastly, the bear cub served to remind viewers that many animals lived in the woods, and that some of them belonged to families of their own. Therefore, if you started a forest fire, more than just Smokey Bear would be impacted. This idea received even greater emphasis in the campaign’s primary poster ad for 1947 (see: below).
In the above ad, Smokey Bear appeared beside two small bear cubs that were presumably his own, given that they’re holding hands and wearing matching outfits. In contrast to the previous ads, Smokey held a shovel—which became a recurring accessory—and wore a rather concerned expression on his face. This was because he was speaking for the first time as a “family man,” responsible for protecting his young cubs and their home (i.e., the forest). The family theme was further reinforced by the heavily anthropomorphized depiction of Smokey and his bear cubs; they each stood upright, had hands instead of paws, wore clothing beyond pants, and had very human expressions (instead of the previously employed puppy-dog look).
The ad also marked the first appearance of the famous slogan, “Remember—Only you can prevent forest fires!” According to Ervin Grant, who worked at the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding during the campaign’s creation, the reason for that particular language was “psychological.” In an article for Boys’ Life, the monthly magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, he wrote:
“We discovered early in our campaign that people don’t believe, or don’t want to believe, that they themselves actually caused fires. They like to blame it on arsonists or lightning or screwballs of one kind or another. ‘But me start a forest fire? Not on your life.’ So Smokey had to get across the idea—without being too rude about it—that it is everyday, decent people like you and me that cause the most damage. And therefore the you line.”
Grant’s explanation for why the slogan was adopted shows just how much thought and effort went into reinventing the campaign’s message following the war. The group in charge of the campaign understood that they needed a powerful, overarching statement to link the new creative materials together—something that’d encourage public participation and achieve top-of-mind awareness. In creating Smokey Bear’s famous slogan, the group effectively presented forest fire prevention as a collective goal for the collective good. Furthermore, the fact that Grant’s remarks were published in a magazine for Boy Scouts showcases how the campaign aimed to attract support from America’s young hearts and minds, as well as adults.
Around 1950, ads from the campaign started featuring various woodland creatures alongside Smokey Bear (beyond just bear cubs). In the above ad on the left, Smokey Bear appeared in the company of two blue birds, a doe and her fawn, and a mother squirrel and her baby. Each animal gazed at the viewer with saddened eyes as they stood in front of the burned-out wasteland that used to be their home. In the above ad on the right, Smokey Bear spoke to the viewer as his two bear cubs were positioned perilously close to a massive forest fire. One of the cubs was knelt down in prayer (an unmistakably human action), while the other attempted to comfort a frightened fawn (a scene that was guaranteed to elicit strong emotions in viewers, young and old).
Much like with Smokey’s slogan, incorporating animals into the ads was a deliberate and calculated decision. “We put [animals] there because they [showed] the helplessness of small creatures and [aroused] people’s protective instincts,” Grant noted in his Boys’ Life article. Viewing forests as a natural source of lumber that needed protection was all well and good, but it didn’t inspire much concern during peacetime. However, viewing forests as being home to some of the country’s most majestic creatures provided something tangible that people could latch onto and connect with; therefore, animals were introduced.
As for the scenery of the above two ads, the ad on the left showed a stark contrast between a pristine forest and one that had succumbed to a devastating forest fire. Behind the animals, everything in sight was dead. And it looked as if nothing would ever survive there again. The ad on the right showed a swirling inferno that was actively threatening Smokey and his two bear cubs. The only indication that it was taking place in a forest were the two incinerated trees on the verge of collapsing into ash.
Both of the ads featured Smokey Bear’s new slogan along with another message, and seemed to say to viewers: “If you don’t want the nation’s forests to end up like this, then pay attention and follow our advice.”
The ad on the left said, “Another 30 MILLION acres will burn this year—unless you are careful!” This helped to quantify what the nation lost each year due to forest fires, and reinforced Smokey’s slogan by doubling down on the “you” language. The message of the ad on the right, “This Shameful Waste WEAKENS AMERICA,” harkened back to the language used during the wartime campaign, when it was the responsibility of citizens to “save the forests to help win the war.” Such evocative wording, combined with the powerful imagery, guaranteed that people would remember the message, even if it wasn’t as family-friendly as the other ads.
Smokey Bear made an immediate impact on the nation’s forests. The U.S. Forest Service estimated in 1957 that there might have been 58 million acres of forest destroyed due to wildfires in the previous year, but that the actual figure was only 9 million acres—a reduction they attributed primarily to the advent of Smokey Bear and the associated advertising campaign. And this was only the beginning.
In the ensuing decades, Smokey continued to spread his message of forest fire prevention across the nation, and established an ever-growing list of supporters. Despite innumerable people working on the campaign over the course of more than seven decades, and gradual changes in Smokey Bear’s appearance, its core message—for all intents and purposes—has remained essentially the same since World War II ended in the mid-1940s. Armed with an official slogan, and bolstered by the support of advertising agencies and government officials, Smokey and a rotating cast of characters have repeatedly and convincingly urged people to prevent forest fires. The campaign has been so successful in conveying its message that several generations of people view it fondly, making it among the most enduring public service campaigns in American history.
Is there an iconic brand or campaign that you’d like to hear more about? Tell us in the comment section below; then, stay tuned to see if your request is chosen for our next installment of “The Roots of Advertising.”