Say it with me, “Smokey The Bear”.
His comic books, his origin story, even his very name, have all been blurred and befuddled with the passage of time. As one of the most well-known mascots, Smokey shaped generations of preservationist attitudes by encouraging simple fire safety rules.
As a long time fan, I was surprised to find out that I actually knew very little of Smokey’s truth. So, I did a little research in an attempt to uncover why his message has lasted so long.
Where There’s Smokey
Growing up, we read the Smokey Bear comic almost nightly because of my sister’s affinity for animal stories. In contrast to many animal tales, this one actually has a happy ending. While the cub’s mother dies, with the same amount of angst as Bambi, he later becomes a champion for wildlife preservation.
The story even breaks the fourth wall with Smokey himself posing for posters and challenging you to “Remember… Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
The message is simple. It’s memorable and easy for even children to understand.
Turns out, his secret to success is not so simple.
Smokey The Bear, If That is Even Your Name
At 44 years, Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention is the longest running PSA (pubic service advertising) campaign in U.S. history. The campaign started with “Smokey says” and little messages about safety. Now, the messages begin with “Remember…”
You’ve seen these signs on the sides of highways and at the entrances to your favorite trails.
Although most people can’t remember a time without the buff bear, he actually came into existence after World War II. According to the official website,
“On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The following spring, Japanese submarines surfaced near the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and fired shells that exploded on an oil field, very close to the Los Padres National Forest. Americans were shocked that the war had come directly to the American mainland. Fear grew that more attacks would bring a disastrous loss of life and destruction of property. There was also a fear that incendiary shells exploding in the forests of the Pacific Coast would ignite numerous raging wildfires.”
Taking on this challenge, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program. They started by borrowing Disney’s Bambi. He graced posters and billboards for one year.
Then, they developed their own icon, a blue-jeaned bear. In 1944, artist Albert Staehle made the first poster and Smokey became the face of forest fire prevention.
More confusingly, his name is actually “Smokey Bear” (sans the). Johnny Jones and Peter Pan Rogers created a song about the character, adding the to his name for the song’s cadence.
Yes. I grew up without knowing Smokey’s real name.
Putting the Cartoon Before the Bear
If you didn’t catch it, that little guy from the comic books isn’t a part of the original story. That’s because the cub came in 1950.
Five years after the character sketch, the well-known baby bear was left orphaned by a forest fire in New Mexico. However, the comic book blurs these lines by telling the story of Smokey as if he became the cartoon.
While you might write this off as children mixing fantasy with reality, this misleading panel infers that the comic book artist based his artwork on the bear.
Instead, the cub was called Hotfoot Teddy when he was first rescued. The national news picked up the story and the public loved him. His name was changed. Then, his story was mixed with the cartoon, making one of the most iconic spokes-bears of all time.
The Smokey Bear Effect
The story of Smokey blossomed in the 1950s, eventually attracting commercial interest. In fact, Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act to remove the character from public domain. Toys, radio shows and coloring books were produced and children could apply to be “junior forest rangers”.
Over 500,000 children applied in the first years.
As the character has hit a legendary status, so has his legacy. In fact, some ecologists speculate that it may have worked a little too well. The Smokey Bear Effect happened with the forest fire ban in the southwest. Without small, manageable fires, wildfires are much worse when they do occur.
Fire historian Stephen Pyne, explains, “The irony here is that the argument for setting these areas aside as national forests and parks was, to a large extent, to protect them from fire. Instead, over time they became the major habitat for free-burning fire.”
Mascots and celebrity endorsements raise sales by an average of 4%. –MarketWatch
So, the Smokey Bear campaign may have worked a little too well. Ecology aside, the overall success of this simple PSA campaign is astounding.
More Than a Mascot
The reason why Smokey Bear, and brand mascots in general, work is that they sidestep complex arguments for an emotional reaction. This process is best defined by the Elaboration Likelihood Model of social psychology.
The theory posits that persuasion can be achieved in one of two ways. The first, is called the central route. This could be summarized as a logical approach to making decisions. People use facts and information to evaluate a situation and change their behavior.
The second is called the peripheral route. Instead of looking at details, people react to stimulus as simply positive or negative. It’s informed by past associations and how well the message is packaged.
Smokey Bear encouraging children to douse their bonfires and crush out cigarettes is quintessential peripheral route reasoning.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model was first developed by Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo. They wanted to explain why some persuasive communication is more effective than others.
A lot of social psychology communication tries to answer why people are illogical. It’s the old “head vs. heart” debate. This model tries to map and predict how persuasion can work.
The peripheral route relies on motivations that are consistent with preexisting attitudes. Also, personal relevance plays a huge role. Basically, the message needs to be easy to relate to your life right now without presenting too many new ideas.
Also, the peripheral route takes advantage of the cluttered messaging environment we live in. With so many distractions, we need ideas that are easy to absorb. People just don’t often take time to think deeply.
With regard to mascots, we can quickly link our baser needs (physiological, safety and belongingness) to a cute animal.
A child following the peripheral route may experience the ideas below in quick succession.
- I want to feel safe and have friends.
- Smokey the Bear is a good friend who wants to keep me safe.
- I can follow Smokey’s fire safety rules.
- I will become a junior forest ranger.
In moments, an image of a dad-bod bear can make a child pledge to preserve forests for a lifetime.
Making a Messenger
Any storyteller can take a tip or two from Smokey’s prolonged success. Go for the heart!
Whenever an organization finds themselves breaking down their brand message into a list of complex features and contingent benefits, I like to take a step back. When you start slashing through the explanations and redundancies, usually one easy idea will emerge.
That’s the one you use.
Put some heart behind that idea and let it burn.
Want to continue the conversation? Follow me on Instagram @verdera.me.