Smokey Bear — a pop culture icon better known by some baby boomers as Smokey the Bear — is going digital in a big way for his 75th birthday in an effort to reach younger Americans with messages that go beyond “only you can prevent forest fires.”
Now, in addition to being a burly, shirtless upright bear in a ranger hat, Smokey is an animated emoji that celebrities — including Stephen Colbert, Jeff Foxworthy and Al Roker — are speaking through.
In many ways, the monthslong ad campaign is a Smokey Bear reboot as the public faces concerns about raging West Coast wildfires, the consequences of global climate change and how to best conserve public land.
“Ensuring an icon like Smokey remains fresh and relevant for today’s audiences is no simple task,” Lisa Sherman, CEO of the Ad Council, said earlier this month, adding that the new campaign honors Smokey’s past and “celebrates his enduring legacy.”
The new public service ads turn old, concise Smokey — who, with 74-year-old actor Sam Elliott’s voice, sounds like grandpa — into a not-quite-as-old, chatty, animated-emoji Smokey — one each by Colbert, 54; Foxworthy, 60; and Roker, 64 — who sounds more like dad.
If there’s any doubt, the celebs in the spots tell some eye-rolling dad jokes.
“Hi, I’m your host Smokey Col-’bear,’ filling in for Smokey,” begins the Smokey emoji ad voiced by Colbert, the late-night TV host. “Because after 75 years of ‘Only you can prevent wildfires,’ it turns out there’s much more to say.”
Smokey Bear was created by artist Albert Staehle, who drew a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire in 1944. One account claims the bear was named after Joe (Smokey) Martin, a New York City Fire Department assistant chief.
Originally, Smokey’s catchphrase was “Smokey Says — Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” In 1947, the phrase became “Remember: Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In 2001, it was updated to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”
The concept for the original poster came out of concerns during World War II that enemy munitions might spark a forest fire on the West Coast and citizens needed to be on guard to prevent these potential disasters.
The campaign was so successful that to prevent Smokey’s image from being exploited by commercial enterprises, it was protected by federal law. The bear’s likeness is now administered by the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council.
There is a 17-page guidebook outlining what Smokey can — and can’t — do.
For instance: Only state forestry agencies and the U.S. Forest Service can own Smokey Bear costumes. Costumes must be ordered from an authorized manufacturer and only Smokey may ever endorse products.
Smokey also must maintain the same look: His eyes are always dark brown, his jeans are always blue and his belt buckle is always gold. And, if there is any confusion, he uses a round-point shovel, not a flat shovel or scoop shovel.
When in costume, the guidebook says, the bear should “never force itself on anyone” and not “walk rapidly toward small children.” The costume must be protected from vandalism, theft, and be properly disposed of by — get this — burning it.
Over the years, Smokey has appeared in a Walt Disney short film, as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and in a popular song, “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear,” which is why some people still refer to him as Smokey the Bear.
But the most popular Smokey incarnation was as a real bear.
It was an American black bear cub that was rescued in 1950 from a 17,000-acre forest fire in Lincoln National Forest in south-central New Mexico. The bear climbed a tree to escape the flames, but his paws and legs got singed.
They first called him Hotfoot Teddy, but later renamed him Smokey Bear.
So many were curious about the cute bear that he was taken to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to live. When he arrived, he was met by hundreds of spectators, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, according to Smithsonian Institution archives.
After that, came thousands of letters to the bear.
So many letters were sent that the post office gave Smokey Bear his own ZIP code, 20252.
Over time, Smokey got old. He died at the zoo in 1976. His death was memorialized in newspaper obituaries, and his remains were taken back to his home in New Mexico for burial.
In 1979, the area where he was buried was turned into Smokey Bear Historical Park.