Happy Birthday, Smokey Bear! 75 Years Old, and Still Going Strong

Betty White, Stephen Colbert voice new promos

Even after three quarters of a century, Smokey Bear's drive to prevent wildfires can't be extinguished.

America's beloved safety icon, star of the longest-running public-service campaign in U.S. history, turns 75 today. New spots display the big guy in emoji form, with Betty White, Stephen Colbert and other celebrities providing narration. FCB, Smokey's agency partner from the very start, created the videos: 

"Betty White, Stephen Colbert, Al Roker and Jeff Foxworthy each feel passionately about protecting the great outdoors," says Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council, which administers the Smokey campaign with the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. "These TV personalities appeal to diverse audiences and were eager to lend their voices to spread Smokey's message." 

Actor Sam Elliott, who's voiced Smokey for a dozen years, delivers the "Only YOU can prevent wildfires" catchphrase. That line was adopted in 2001, updating "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires," which had been in use since 1947. (Coincidentally, Elliott also turns 75 today. Or IS it a coincidence? Yes, it is.) 

Smokey's pro-bono placements through the past seven and a half decades represent nearly $1.63 billion in support. "We tend see increased donated media during milestone birthday years," Sherman says. 

Since his introduction, there's been a 60 percent decrease in wildfires. Surveys show that nearly 9 out of 10 such conflagrations are still caused by humans, so Smokey's message remains relevant. 

That "9 out of 10" stat played into Smokey's very first appearance—clad in his familiar ranger hat and dungarees—in 1944:

The poster appeared during World War II, when many firefighters were serving overseas, and communities decided public education was the best way to avert tragic blazes in the nation's forests. 

The character was named for "Smokey" Joe Martin, a New York firefighter who died in 1941. Though sometimes referred to as "Smokey the Bear"—PSAs have always used the "Smokey Bear" name. 

Confusion likely stemmed from an oft-covered 1952 tune by songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins… 

…and this Little Golden Book from the same era:

In 1950, a flesh-and-blood (and fur) Smokey caught America's imagination, when a black bear cub rescued from a New Mexico wildfire became the living paw-sonification of the character. 

After years of print and radio spots, searing the pitch-bear into the collective psyche, Smokey hit TV screens, including this amazing 1968 foray with Twilight Zone host and creator Rod Serling: 

Actually, this early-'90s rapping Smokey is even more like something out of a freaky fifth dimension:

Do do do do … do do do do, right? Still, M.C. Smokey keeps it real in the end.

Years later, a self-consciously campy 70th anniversary "Bear Hug" push proved popular: 

Sherman notes that embracing "new modes of communication, social media and technology" have fueled Smokey's enduring popularity, "giving him a voice that has extended well beyond the realm of traditional advertising."

Over the years, "Smokey has transcended from advertising icon to a mainstream part of our culture," she says. "Smokey's legacy is truly a testament to the impact we can have when marketers come together in service of a single cause."

As part of his 75th birthday celebration, Smokey will return in ginormous balloon form to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. He last appeared at the event in 1993, riding a float, after making balloon appearances every year from 1966 until 1981.

Below, see a gallery of Smokey posters through the years.


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