In the spring of 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced near the coast of southern California and fired a round of shells that exploded on an oil field near Santa Barbara, all too near the towering Los Padres National Forest. Americans across the nation were horrified that an ongoing war their country had so eagerly tried to stay out of had already left Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour a floating national cemetery, and was now harassing the mainland. One of the largest concerns at the time was that Japanese gunfire would ignite raging forest fires in the valuable timber stands of the Pacific coast. Much of America’s war effort depended heavily on wood, which provided everything from polished rifle butts to dread warships. It was clear California’s pristine stretches of forest needed protection, especially as manpower to battle any kind of fire became scarcer and scarcer. Most experienced firefighters and able-bodied men were either getting sucked into the draft or were already engaged in the armed forces, so struggling home communities were left to deal with the threat of unruly blazes as best as they could. If only people could be urged towards caution, to not leave stray gas lamps burning while camping or to cease the casual flicking away of errant cigarettes, perhaps many thousands of wooded acres might survive un-scorched.
With this notion in mind, the United States Forest Service launched the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign with the aid of the Wartime Advertising Council. It was at this time that visual culture, propaganda masked in fuzzy patriotism and the simple idea “please, don’t burn s***” began colliding to save lives, effort and lots of money still in raw tree form. At first the anti-fire campaign employed typical WWII slogans on sober posters, blurbs like “Careless Matches Aid the Axis,” and, “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon” accompanied by duly frightening images of Adolf Hitler and his gang of fascist allies. A need arose for a friendlier, more palatable champion of virgin forestland, and Smokey Bear was conceived to fill that role.
Inspired by a real live bear cub, stranded one dry summer by a real live wildfire, Albert Staehle, a popular commercial illustrator and magazine cover artist, drew the first bear. There was one problem: he was naked. Staehle was instructed by topside to give the bear pants and a hat. Once sketched, Smokey remained an experiment in the effectiveness of politically correct, visually-based anthropomorphism in the promotion of civil responsibility. His human-like qualities make Smokey vastly more credible as an authority figure, and after seventy years he remains a celebrity spokesman, pop culture icon and quite literally a tireless philanthropist. The bear is so famous he was even granted his own zip code, 20252, to handle all his fan mail. Smokey’s success isn’t easily ignored; luckily, closer examination of paper ephemera and other media featuring the shaggy star reveals many reasons for this particular bear’s ubiquity.
The very first poster sporting Smokey Bear appeared in 1944, and it was an extremely docile prototype in comparison to the Ad Council’s previous attempts embellished with snarling Führers. Smokey, in his neatly cuffed and belted blue jeans, is busy at work pouring the watery contents of a bucket over a shriveling patch of campfire remains. In the background is a pale sky, a starkly silhouetted tree line and dry husks of grass, just waiting to burst into flame. Such overall simplicity forces the figure of Smokey directly into the viewer’s attention. The bear further commands the scene by holding eye contact with any onlookers present, peering meekly, yet ever-dutifully, out from underneath his signature forest ranger hat with glossy eyes. Phrasing accompanying the image states, “Smokey Says— Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” reinforcing the feeling that Smokey Bear is speaking directly to his audience, and that his audience best listen up. He exudes positive qualities like expertise and professionalism. Yet it is key to note that in this preliminary poster Smokey maintains his essential “bearness” in light of his illustrator’s outright use of personification. While garbed similarly to a human ranger, Smokey hangs on to the rich and shiny coat, chocolaty colouration, thick paws, loose body mass and stubby snout of a real bear. This representation allowed the masses, adults and children alike, to relate to pragmatic, professorial Smokey, but also preserved the brute strength native to bear species— strength entirely necessary to carry on struggling against rampant, needless washes of flame.
By the 1960’s, Smokey Bear was no longer restricted to flat poster corners, but graced the covers of national publications, could be heard on cheerily authoritarian radio spots and was regularly duplicated in massive cardboard cutouts and stamps. He appeared regularly in full-colour comic strips, an example of which provides evidence of development in the Ad Council’s tactics when analysed alongside the just discussed original Smokey poster. This particular comic from 1960 portrays Smokey in the foreground of a verdant forest, flourishing with neither a smudge of ash or worrying cinder in sight. Robust evergreens insinuate what America’s woodlands should look like, lest irresponsible hooligans torch them on purpose or by accident. Smokey stands to the left, boastfully motioning backwards to the lush and healthy environs and suggesting he and the viewer have accomplished this miraculous feat together. The bear himself seems to have undergone a physical transformation since 1944. While still staying comfortable in his all-American denim, Smokey has bulked up a pants size or two, to really fill out those jeans. Instead of the more bear-like physique seen before, Smokey shows off the rippling pectoral and bicep muscles of a lumberjack. He has evolved ever-important opposable thumbs, and with them, the ability to brandish a shovel. Even his fur has taken on the appearance of a man’s chest and arm hair. His hat, meticulously labeled “Smokey” re-establishes his namesake in the viewer’s mind and strengthens links to the traditional uniforms of brave mountaineers and forest rangers. Smokey is now as humanised as a bear can get, and he addresses his audience of people on equal, intimate terms. His speech bubble reads, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” Smokey is imparting a sense of stewardship, even urgency, to his viewers and comes off much more as an almighty spokesperson (emphasis on the person) than a bumbling, cave-dwelling beast.
Coupled with Smokey’s newfound straightforwardness was the invasive nature of the comic itself. This image would have likely been seen in Sunday newspapers, delivered to thousands of households and passed around many a breakfast nook. By combining a more anthropomorphised, assertive Smokey with a pervasive and lighthearted form of media, the U.S. Forest Service was able to entrench its message concerning environmental obligations more deeply into all age demographics; youngsters asking to read the funny papers and kids at heart skipping past the hard news. By speaking directly to all the YOU‘s of the nation, Smokey reminded people that, yes, their actions entail ramifications, and by acting wisely, they could protect leagues of unsullied landscapes and maybe even an actual bear or two. This simple doodle in a square frame plays dexterously upon the webby layers of the self-aware psyche, leaving traces of culpability in its wake.
While much print media continued to be produced featuring Smokey, video technology advanced by the 1990’s and allowed for greater visual stimulation than did static comic books, t-shirts or bookmarks. And so kid-oriented PSA commercials began airing on American television channels. We Know We Can Count on You is only one of many such public service announcements, animatedly displaying the government’s growing taste for flashier “advanced” media, yet it is distinctive due to its completely anthropomorphised content. The cartoon opens as a fragile bird egg plummets perilously from a treetop, straight into the open palm of Smokey, upon which the baby bird leaps from his shelled confines into a full blown musical number complete with a choir of other timid woodland creatures. The animals reiterate Smokey’s unchanging rhetoric, that each individual out there ought to be dousing their campfire and checking it twice, but the message is presented rather uniquely. Flamboyantly, really; the critters line dance in flawless synchronisation and flash jazzy hand gestures. Each animal even has his or her own unique vibrato singing voice. By rendering these forest inhabitants as skilled soloists and dedicated backup dancers, queerly human despite their paws and whiskers, animators have subtly deemed them worthy of moral consideration, and ensured their ability to whisk up nurturing instincts in audiences. Smokey’s appearance here hasn’t altered much since the sixties’ cartoon; intact is his ripped bod, useful thumbs, work pants and embroidered hat, but he interacts even more directly with viewers. “Only you can prevent forest fires” is now accompanied by unbroken eye contact, a brusque point of a furry index finger at each audience member and a well-timed furrowing of Smokey’s brow.
The presence of all the other forest creatures with human talents also anthropomorphises Smokey further, for he is seen as the glue of a wide network of friends requiring protection, friends including everyone from the neighbourhood pirouetting moose to soprano frogs and quickstepping rabbits. These animals cling to and cluster about Smokey, the brotherly defender of the forest ecosystem, and of us, too. Due to its repetitive after-school TV format, this miniature opera with is catchy melody and vivid colour palette had a way of lodging itself in the consciousness and proved extremely successful for the beloved, socially upright bear.
And have you seen Smokey lately? He’s matured into a mostly computer generated mascot, perhaps manlier than ever with a glinting belt buckle, clipped fingernails and the beginnings of a beer gut. More and more like the population he diligently shepherds away from self-immolation. It’s curious to think this trustworthy, best-intentioned of guys was born during an era of international turmoil and heightened fear. Despite foreign threats of grisly attacks with the potential to cook the great Redwoods into powdered ash, the imagery surrounding Smokey is nothing if not gallant, warmhearted and inviting. Because it needed to be. Smokey didn’t just open peoples’ eyes to the dangers and preventable stupidity of forest fires in he 1940’s. As this summer proves to be a combustible and ruinous one for the nature preserves Smokey Bear loves best, it can only be hoped people will continue to heed his good-natured fussing, because they see something of themselves, something magnanimous and worth protecting, in his dewy brown eyes, knowing half-smile and steel-toed boots.
Sources: Mike Anton, “At 65, Smokey Bear Is Still Fighting Fires”, Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2009// James L. Biddle, “Smokey Bear’s Origin”, Newton Square Fire Company (NSFC.org)// Rick Nauert, PhD “Why Do We Anthropomorphize?”, Psych Central, March 2010//smokeybear.com//U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Ad Council and U.S. Forest Service