Smokey Bear’s staying power shows the importance of messaging consistency

Nov 3, 2017

In the early 1940s, the U.S. government faced a major enterprise risk.

Japanese forces had attacked the American mainland multiple times, and because most able-bodied men were deployed, there was mounting concern about what would happen if military strikes caused forest fires on the West Coast.

The solution? Advertising, of course.

To reduce the overall amount of fires, the Forest Service launched a campaign to educate the public about their role in prevention.

The first ads were straight xenophobic.

A 1943 forest fire prevention ad, featuring caricatures of Adolf Hitler and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

The second set called on a major influencer of the day – Bambi.

A 1944 forest fire prevention ad, featuring Bambi.

But Disney only lent Bambi’s likeness for a year. In need of a new animal mascot, the agency released a new ad in 1944, with a bear pouring water over a fire. His name was Smokey.

The first Smokey ad.

Today, Smokey Bear (not Smokey the Bear, as many people believe) is the longest running campaign by the Ad Council, a non-profit, public service communications organization that was also borne of WWII. According to the Council’s own research, 95% of adults and 77% of children now recognize the famous slogan, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

To some extent, the campaign has been almost too successful. It’s credited with halving the amount of wildfires, but forest ecologists argue the prevention of naturally occurring wildfires leads to more extreme fires like those recently seen in California.

That’s why the campaign was tweaked in 2000 to use the phrase “wildfires” rather than “forest fires.”

Other than that, not much has changed in more than 70 years.

Long story short: Smokey Bear shows that consistency is key to making a story stick. If you want your message burned into your audience’s memory, it’s important to start with a spark of creativity, but it’s just as important that you keep adding fuel to the fire.


This article first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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