- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

Smokey Bear is the spark behind the longest-running public-service campaign in U.S. history.

The national symbol for wildfire prevention turns 60 today.

“Smokey Bear is one of the most beloved advertising icons in American history, and his important message has been communicated to generations of Americans,” said Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive of the Advertising Council, a nonprofit group that produces public-service campaigns.

The campaign is a long-standing partnership with the Ad Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.

Since 1980, Smokey Bear’s campaign has received more than $1 billion in donated advertising time and space.

Even more noteworthy is the long-lasting relationship Smokey has had with its creator: Foote Cone & Belding’s Southern California office, which brought the bear to life Aug. 9, 1944.

“Decades-long relationships are rare, particularly rarer still in the advertising industry,” said Jon Tracosas, president of Foote Cone & Belding’s Southern California office, which is still creating ads for the campaign today.

The Ad Council has had long-standing relationships with other agencies like Young & Rubicam Inc., which created the United Negro College Fund’s tagline “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” in 1972. The agency has worked on the campaign ever since. Saatchi & Saatchi has worked on the National Crime Prevention Council campaign since 1979, when it introduced McGruff the Crime Dog.

Contrary to popular belief, Smokey Bear is not called “Smokey the Bear.” The incorrect name caught on in 1952 after a song was written about him. The word “the” was inserted between Smokey and Bear to maintain the proper rhythm in the song.

Officials say the Smokey Bear campaign — no matter how Americans remember his name — has been effective in preventing forest fires and making people aware of their responsibility in doing so.

When the campaign started in 1944, more than 20 million acres were lost annually to forest fires. Last year, about 5 million acres were lost, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Despite the campaign’s success, wildfires still cost billions of dollars in damage and cleanup. About $1.3 billion was spent to suppress wildfires last year.

Many Americans continue to believe that lightning starts most wildfires, when in fact more than 88 percent of wildfires nationwide are started by people.

“Smokey’s reason for being has not changed over 60 years,” said Lewis Southard, branch chief of fire prevention for the USDA Forest Service.

The yearly challenge for Foote Cone & Belding, which volunteers its time to the campaign, is to keep Smokey fresh while retaining his familiar fire-prevention message.

Foote Cone & Belding Worldwide is also responsible for other ad icons like the smiling Kool-Aid pitcher, the Raid bug and the dancing California Raisins.

The Smokey Bear campaign has ignited competition among the agency’s creative people from generation to generation.

“Every year it’s thrown open to the whole creative group — everybody goes after it,” Mr. Tracosas said. “There is a fervor about doing this.”

Smokey Bear looks good for his age. He’s undergone some nips and tucks over the years.

His all-important tagline has been tweaked, too.

In 2001, “Only you can prevent forest fires” was updated to “Only you can prevent wildfires,” to reflect the outbreak of wildfires throughout the United States.

“The message itself has not changed,” Ms. Conlon said. “It’s still relevant.”


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