Smokey Wildfire Prevention: The Longest-Running Public Service Campaign in U.S. History

“Only you can prevent forest fires,” as Smokey the Bear says. Although you know his famous quote, you may not realize how long he’s been reciting it. Since 1944, this campaign has educated billions of Americans about their role in wildfires — with no sign of ending its tenure as the longest-running public service campaign in United States history. Smokey’s campaign has stood the test of time by using the power of advertising and public relations. 

I was unaware of Smokey the Bear’s significance to the promotional world until the fact was shared during his yearly appearance floating across my television screen in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. His iconic catchphrase is shared in many modern media events despite its origination long ago. The campaign’s message to raise awareness for wildfire prevention is still as critical of an issue affecting our country today as it was 78 years ago. 

Smokey’s Origin

The Wildfire Prevention campaign began shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. While many of the first responders and other able-bodied men were deployed in the war, the nation experienced a shortage of protection from wildfires. As a matter of national importance, it was deemed necessary for the average citizen to be aware of their role in preventing wildfires and to be conscious of their own actions.

In 1950, a three-month-old bear that was found in a tree after the Capitan Gap wildfire in New Mexico became Smokey’s real-life counterpart. Unsurprisingly, the adjective “smoky” is the inspiration for his name. The bear resided in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and was paired with a female bear named Goldie Bear and their “adopted” son, Little Smokey. When he died in 1976, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and many other outlets wrote obituaries for him. 

Iconic Catchphrase

Throughout the years, Smokey’s catchphrase has shifted to become more effective and culturally accurate. “Smokey Says — Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires” was the original phrase in 1944, and was swiftly adjusted to “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires” in 1947. The newest iteration, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” came in 2001 to clarify the difference between unplanned outdoor fires and necessary controlled forest fires. 

Federal Protections

The significance of Smokey the Bear’s image resulted in it becoming protected by U.S. federal law, and can only be delegated with the permission of the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council. An Act of Congress had placed Smokey’s image under the control of the Secretary of Architecture, where its approved use can collect royalties and fees to go toward continued wildfire prevention education. 

Campaign Longevity

Smokey’s well-rounded brand makes him an extremely valuable character in the modern age, according to Susan Credle of FCB Global, the agency managing the bear’s image for over 25 years. He aligns with critical areas of brand building: quickly creating a lasting emotional connection with the audience, performing well in today’s media landscape, and authentically expressing the brand’s purpose. 

The character and catchphrase still hold relevance outside of the Smokey parade float every year, even in unexpected areas of the internet. He is referenced in the video game “Fortnite: Battle Royale,” where a female character in a teddy bear costume does his signature pointing pose alongside the message “Only YOU can prevent V-Buck scams” to reference possible security compromises regarding their online currency. 

The Smokey Wildfire Prevention campaign has stood the test of time and maintained relevance far longer than most characters. This campaign serves as an exemplary quality of good public relations and advertising. Next time you see Smokey or hear his iconic catchphrase, you can attribute it to this campaign’s success. 

Melina O’Neal is a third-year media and culture student at West Chester University of Pennsylvania with a minor in digital marketing. She currently interns in public relations and external communications. With PRSSA, she serves as a District Ambassador, National Publications Committee member, and treasurer for her collegiate Chapter. You can connect with Melina via LinkedIn.

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