The Secrets of Smokey Bear: Lessons from America’s Longest-Running PSA Campaign

by | Jul 2, 2024

Smokey Bear, the beloved furry face of wildfire prevention, celebrated his 80th birthday at Cannes Lions this year in grand style. Deployed by the Ad Council just two years after the organization’s own founding, Smokey is now America’s longest-running public service campaign. But this anniversary wasn’t just cause for a party; Smokey’s legacy offered a deep dive into the strategies that have made the bear an enduring icon and a beacon for brands seeking to create impactful, purpose-driven campaigns. With iconic advertising tougher and tougher to create, the whole industry can learn a thing or two from an 80-year-old cartoon bear.

As America’s longest-running public service campaign, Smokey Bear stands as a towering figure in fire prevention, symbolizing vigilance and responsibility for over eight decades. A Cannes panel discussion hosted at the Infillion Café, “Tracing the Legacy and Future of Smokey Bear,” took us on a journey through Smokey’s evolution, from his humble beginnings as a poster bear to his modern-day presence across diverse media channels. Participants included Meredith Brace, CMO of XR Extreme Reach, Laurie Keith of the Ad Council, and Todd Sussman of FCB New York, with moderation by Jamie Madge, co-editor of Shots. Each brought unique insights into Smokey’s evolution, discussing the intersection of tradition and innovation in keeping Smokey relevant.

Laurie Keith kicked off the panel discussion by highlighting Smokey’s remarkable impact. Before Smokey’s inception during WWII, wildfire prevention campaigns were sporadic and lacked the cohesive messaging needed to create mainstream awareness and effect change. Smokey changed that to an extent that still resonates today. “Smokey Bear’s message, ‘Only you can prevent wildfires,’ resonates with 80% of Americans today – a testament to its powerful branding,” she explained. Initially delivered through posters and radio, Smokey now graces everything from social media to animated emojis, ensuring his message meets audiences wherever they are. “Still today, 9 out of 10 unwanted wildfires are caused by humans, which underscores the timeless relevance of Smokey’s message,” Keith added.


Evolving Creative & Media Strategies for a New Era 

In short, Smokey’s simple message works – and continues to work. But keeping Smokey relevant has meant bringing the bear to new platforms. Meredith Brace, CMO of XR Extreme Reach, detailed how XR has helped catapult Smokey into the digital era, ensuring that the campaign’s PSAs are broadcast across diverse media platforms and can reach new audiences. “From traditional TV spots to dynamic online content, our goal is to keep Smokey’s message omnipresent and resonant across all media,” Brace explained.   She also discussed how XR Extreme Reach has helped modernize the delivery of Smokey’s message across various platforms. “We ensure that Smokey’s PSAs are seen and heard across every conceivable medium, from traditional broadcast to cutting-edge digital platforms, maintaining the campaign’s impact regardless of evolving media landscapes.” XR’s expertise in media distribution has ensured that Smokey’s message appears on “2,000 linear television broadcasters and 9,000 radio stations around the nation,” Brace explained, reaching diverse audiences across every screen.

But while the creative execution adapts to the times, Smokey’s message has remained virtually unchanged. As Laurie Keith remarked, “His consistent, simple message, adapted to the digital age, has kept Smokey at the forefront of public consciousness.”

Embracing technology has been crucial to Smokey’s continued success – and it’s going to continue to do so. The panel explored how innovations like virtual reality and augmented reality could further engage audiences. “Imagine interacting with Smokey in a virtual forest, learning fire safety in the most engaging way possible,” Keith suggested.


Accessibility for All: Reaching Diverse Audiences

The panel highlighted the importance of ensuring that Smokey Bear’s message resonates with diverse communities, emphasizing that accessibility goes beyond language translation to include cultural tailoring. This approach ensures that Smokey’s  message is relevant and impactful across various cultural contexts.

Smokey’s message is accessible to all, regardless of sensory ability – everyone, including those who are visually or hearing-impaired, can receive Smokey’s message. All Ad Council campaigns comply with Section 508 standards, ensuring they are accessible by including features such as closed captioning and high-definition images. Meredith Brace shared a finding from a recent XR report which found that around 600 million people worldwide are visually or audibly impaired. “Failing to make Smokey’s messaging inclusive means missing the opportunity to reach a significant portion of the global population,” Brace added.

Todd Sussman of FCB shared insights on engaging younger demographics, emphasizing the long-term impact of educating children about fire prevention. “By engaging children in Smokey’s mission, we ensure his message of prevention is carried to future generations,” he highlighted.


The Future of Smokey: Burning Brightly

At 80, Smokey Bear shows no signs of slowing down. But the bear’s 80th birthday at Cannes wasn’t just a celebration of a beloved icon; it was a masterclass in purpose-driven marketing. By staying true to his core message, embracing innovation, and forging strong partnerships, Smokey continues to blaze a trail for brands seeking to make a difference in the world. Just like preventing wildfires, creating impactful marketing campaigns takes a collective effort, and Smokey Bear’s legacy proves that when brands and purpose-driven organizations work together, they can achieve great things. The Cannes Lions panel underscored Smokey Bear’s adaptability and his campaign’s ongoing commitment to educating the public on wildfire prevention. As technological advancements continue to reshape how we consume media, Smokey’s message remains a constant force, evolving to meet the needs of a diverse global audience.

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