May 13, 2014 -- Smokey Bear turns 70 in August; and like many another Americans turning 70, he is not the bear he was when he was 20 or 40 or even 65.
The difference will be apparent to anyone who watches a new series of PSAs (public service announcements) released to mark his birthday by the U.S. Forest Service, the Ad Council and the National Association of State Foresters.
Smokey has mellowed.
Gone is the bear who once reprimanded fire-careless campers with a disapproving look and a pointed finger. It used to be that when Smokey warned, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” the emphasis was on the “you”—the implication being that anybody who broke the rules would have to answer personally to a giant, no-nonsense, pants-wearing bear.
Septuagenarian Smokey is all about giving back, about warmth and emotional rewards: You put out your campfire, Smokey hugs you.
One of the new PSAs, set at night, depicts a leading cause of wildfires—metal tow-chains dragging on the ground between a truck and boat, say, causing sparks. The truck’s driver—a burly fellow—sees the danger. He stops and gets out. As he re-adjusts his chains by flashlight, ominous music plays in the background: someone unseen is in the woods, watching. The man stands. He turns, and finds his face staring directly into huge, hairy sternum. Smokey reaches forward and embraces him.
A voice-over says: “If you don’t fix them, sparks from dragging tow chains can cause wildfires—and that can be scary.”
“Bayh, Smokey!” says the man, waving happily, as Smokey ambles off into the gloom.
Loren Walker, national fire prevention coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, is keeper of the Smokey flame—the guy responsible for maintaining the integrity of the Smokey brand. He downplays any difference between the sometimes gruff bear of yesteryear and the new, more genial one. “He’s got a friendlier smile,” Walker allows. “That’s the biggest thing.”
There was hugging in some previous PSAs, he tells ABC News. But now, in recognition of Smokey’s birthday, it is two-way: One PSA shows bird watchers, Girl Scouts, forest rangers and firefighters all coming forward to give the big guy a hug.
The spots, created by ad agency FCB West, are only the latest in a wildfire-prevention campaign first launched in 1944—one the longest-running PSA campaigns in American history, according to a joint agency press release celebrating Smokey’s birthday. It is also one of the most successful: The average number of acres lost to fire, according to the Forest Service, has dropped from 22 million a year in 1944 to 6.7 million now.
Eric Springer, chief creative officer of FCB West, tells ABC News that to have changed Smokey too much would have been tantamount “to shaving the goatee off Colonel Sanders.”
The change, he says, has been more subtle: The mature Smokey is a little more fun-loving, a little more emotional, more inclined to congratulate people for their good behavior. His hat is little different. So are his pants. Smokey now wears Levis, recognizable as such from their red tag on the back. “An icon should wear iconic jeans,” says Springer. The younger bear wasn’t so particular, sometimes wearing overalls, sometimes khakis, sometimes off-brand jeans.
Springer says students at Brigham Young University contributed the idea behind one of the birthday PSAs: Smokey watches as a group of well-wishers emerges from the woods into a clearing. He sees instantly what they are carrying: a cake with 70 flaming candles!
Registering dismay (as much dismay as someone with a muzzle can register), he reaches for a water bucket. But before he is forced to act, a little girl blows out the candles. Danger passed, everyone stands down.
He may be old, but Smokey is with-it: according to his birthday announcement, he has 180,000 Facebook fans, 22,000 Twitter followers and over 620,000 views on YouTube.
Michael Bellavia, CEO of marketing agency HelpsGood in L.A., manages Smokey’s social media. “He may be the only bear on Linkedin,” Bellavia tells ABC News. “When people hear a bear is tweeting, they go nutty.”
Bellavia says people have taken to tweeting their fire-related good deeds, in hopes Smokey will hug them online. A mother recently tweeted a picture of her two young sons (“my junior rangers”) putting out a campfire. Smokey tweeted back: “Love seeing this. Leslie and her sons came across an unattended campfire…and put it out! Thanks!”
Bellavia, asked if it’s he who writes Smokey’s copy, asks in turn, “Do you want me to ruin the magic of Santa Claus here?”
We guess we don’t.
Persons wishing to get in touch with Smokey directly can do so via Smokeybear.com. His birthday is August 9. But please if you see a bear in the woods--with or without pants--we don't recommend hugging.