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Smokey Turns 65

By Alexandra Petri

He’s sixty-five years old and still a noteworthy public figure. He recently joined Twitter. He appeared shirtless on the Today Show and Al Roker didn’t bat an eye. Instead, he handed him a jar of honey.

That’s right -- it’s Smokey Bear. This past weekend, one of America’s most recognized spokesmascots celebrated his 65th birthday. Now Smokey, like many other aging public figures, has to tackle the question of how to remain relevant without losing the characteristic quality -- ranger-hatted bear minding the fine line between civic-minded and corny -- that made him a star.

If Smokey's past 65 years have any lesson, it may be: sometimes you have to stick to what works.

Smokey wasn't the first forest-fire prevention mascot. After a Japanese submarine surfaced in 1942 and fired shells that ignited a blaze dangerously close to the Los Padres National Forest, the Forest Service tried characters that ranged from Death on horseback spewing fire (too apocalyptic) to eerily smiling Nazi officers above the text “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon” (too ominous) to Bambi (too copyright-infringing). Finally, in 1944, they settled on a bear mascot, and Smokey was born.

His original slogan was a little passive -- “Smokey Says -- Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires,” so in 1947 Smokey shifted to, “Remember -- Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” This remained the slogan for more than fifty years.

Now that Smokey is 65, he’s started experimenting. He’s joined Facebook, MySpace, Youtube, Flickr, and Twitter. His latest series of commercials feature digital animation and a new, hip slogan: “Get Your Smokey On.” They are, frankly, somewhat terrifying. "Getting your Smokey on” turns out to be a process in which people who express concerns about fire safety suddenly turn into giant, talking Smokeys the Bear. If a friend of mine suddenly turned into Smokey the Bear, I wouldn’t stop to put out the fire my lighted cigarette had started. I would run screaming from the woods.

Smokey has remained a model for government public-service campaigns -- and survived for 65 years -- by sticking to a simple, ubiquitous and era-neutral message that means the same thing on his Twitter feed as it does on Forest Service posters. "Get Your Smokey On," on the other hand, already sounds dated.

By Alexandra Petri  | August 11, 2009; 5:05 PM ET
Categories:  Petri  | Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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It should be noted that the late Jackson Weaver of WMAL radio was the voice of Smokey for many, many years

Posted by: bobbydeeanderson | August 12, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: edtroyhampton | August 12, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

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