Smokey Bear is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history (The Ad Council, 2018). Originally created in 1944, Smokey played a significant role in educating Americans about the prevention of wildfire. Nearly seventy-five years later he is still relevant and popular in fire education. However, literature contains very little information on why Smokey Bear is such a successful marketing tool. Perhaps it is as simple as being a furry and loveable mascot, but I would like to argue that there are more complex mechanisms in place that have promoted his pervasive presence in forest management.
Dissecting the accomplishments of the Smokey Bear campaign through a communicative lens is important in understanding how a message can be transferred effectively. Not only that, but recognizing the concepts used could be helpful in creating a long-lasting communication strategy. This paper seeks to determine what communication theories were most helpful in Smokey’s unique success. It will review the following theories: ‘Diffusion of Innovation’, ‘Risk Communication’, and ‘Social Cognitive Theory’.
Other theories were considered, but the above were chosen based on outward compatibility and long-standing individual histories within a communication context. The following will questions be considered:
Connected to the last point, this paper will also project the future success of Smokey’s campaign based on current use of the previously listed models. Although the communication methods used by Smokey Bear may seem antiquated to some he remains a prominent symbol as a steward of the forest.
His work showcases the realistic and high-risk natural disasters that are forest fires, and the theories associated with his message should be comprehended and appreciated by all proclaimed communication disciplines.
Most people know that Smokey Bear was created to promote the prevention of wildfire, but few can describe his origin story. During the spring of 1942, only a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese submarines fired shells off the coast of Santa Barbara (The Ad Council, 2018). These ordinances exploded on an oil field located adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest. This attack on American soil caused government leaders to recognize the potential dangers of wildfire (The Ad Council, 2018). The threat was two-fold: for one, almost all able-bodied men were being mobilized for the war effort. Firefighters were especially scarce and the United States couldn’t afford, both in the physical and fiscal sense, to leave men behind to combat wildfire. In addition, a direct attack on forested land could result in the loss of extremely valuable timber – timber that would eventually be used as raw materials for the war effort. It was quickly realized that fire prevention was a matter of national security. Soon afterwards, the Forest Service created the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program (The Ad Council, 2018). Members included the Forest Service, the Advertising Council, and the Association of State Foresters. Together these organizations created and distributed posters with the following slogans: “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon”.
In 1942, Walt Disney released Bambi and allowed CFFP to use movie characters on a poster series (Hartlaub, 2010). It was a wild success. However, Disney had only released rights for one year. What other animal could represent fire safety? In 1944, Forest Service authorized the creation of Smokey Bear (U.S. Forest Service, 2014). Posters, stamps, postcards, stickers, pencils, and other paraphernalia were mass produced and sent across the nation. Just six years later, in the spring of 1950, a young bear cub was caught in a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. He was rescued by firefighters and christened Smokey. The little bear became the living symbol of fire prevention and died of old age in 1976 (U.S. Forest Service, 2014).
Today, Smokey still plays a pivotal role in fire education and prevention. He can be found on posters, comic books, pencils, television shows, clothing merchandise, and of course in person at forest-related events around the nation. Without a doubt, he is a much beloved character that has withstood the test of time.
Diffusion of innovation (DOI) is the process by which an innovation is communicated through channels over a period of time among members of a social system (Gouws and Rheedem, 2011). This theory’s formation occurred during the early 1900’s by Gabriel Tarde, a French lawyer and judge. Tarde is credited with the concept of ‘imitation’, which today is known as the ‘adoption of innovation’ level in DOI (Rogers, 2003). The modern theory of DOI was developed in 1962 by E.M. Rogers and is one of the oldest established social science theories to date. While the contemporary theory came to fruition eighteen years after Smokey’s creation it can still be related to messaging success. According to Gouws and Rheedem, “When new ideas are invented, diffused, and adopted or rejected it leads to certain consequences … ultimately social change occurs” (2011). Social and behavioral changes were exactly what forest managers were hoping for with this campaign. They sought to instill new behaviors with fire safety such as: digging pits away from overhanging branches, circling pits with rocks or other nonflammable materials, and keeping extra water nearby to extinguish fires completely.
Another diffusion theory concept is that groups accept innovations at different times. There are innovators, early adopters, early majority, and late majority – all of these groups play a role in how a message is received and retained (Srivastava & Moreland, 2012). This particular portion of DOI didn’t necessarily play a significant role in the acceptance of Smokey’s message because national security was on the forefront of everyone’s mind. Everyone was encouraged and expected to do their part in supporting the war effort at home.
There are five recorded qualities in DOI that make innovations spread: relative advantage, compatibility with existing values and practices, simplicity and ease of use, trialability, and observable results (Robinson, 2009). While Smokey relates directly to all of the listed components he has strong parallels with the following three: compatibility with existing values and practices, simplicity and ease of use, and observable results. As mentioned earlier, America was mobilized and participating in World War II, and all citizens were expected to contribute in some way to the war effort. Civilians bought war bonds, planted ‘Victory gardens’, and recycled all scrap materials. Wildfire prevention was just another tool to support the country in a time of war. Fire prevention is also relatively easy; it is a matter of common sense for the most part. Don’t leave fires unattended. Completely crush out cigarettes. Always extinguish a fire thoroughly. Results were highly observable from this campaign as well. Not only did the Forest Service see a decline in human-started wildfires, but wildfire prevention and succession has radically changed landscapes across the United States, as evidenced particularly in the Southeast (Donovan & Brown, 2007).