It’s a Good Thing We Have Smokey: These 1940s Fire Prevention Ads Are Something Else

Replacing racially charged and aggressive World War II imagery, Smokey the Bear is an iconic character


Smokey the Bear’s image is getting a refresher, from stern authority figure to cuddly companion, says the New York Times.

Although the campaign still declares “Only you can prevent wildfires” — the wording was changed from “forest fires” in 2001 — Smokey is changing from a teacher or authority figure into a paragon of positive reinforcement. To underscore the shift, Smokey will now hug people in the wilderness who demonstrate they know how to avoid causing fires.

The problem with Smokey’s well-known slogan, says the Times, is that though people know that only they can prevent wildfires, previous ads didn’t tell them how, specifically, to go about doing that.

The refresh is one of the few updates to Smokey’s image since the character was introduced 69 years ago. Back in 1944, Smokey’s slogan was a bit different, says the USDA and Ad Council’s site about Smokey.

The original Smokey the Bear ad
The original Smokey the Bear ad U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons

In 1947 it was changed to the more familiar, “Remember…Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In 2001 the slogan saw another refresh,

In 2001, it was again modified to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests. The term “wildfire” applies to any unwanted, unplanned, uncontrolled outdoor fire.

The new Smokey is softer and gentler than his strict, authoritative prior self. But back in 1944, when Smokey was introduced, even stern Smokey was a huge step from the fire prevention ads that came before. Like many other campaigns at the time, the Forest Service’s messages were often grounded in overt racial stereotypes and aggressive World War II imagery.

A USDA poster from 1943
A USDA poster from 1943 New Hampshire State Library
“A highly caricatured Japanese soldier grins before a lighted match.” c 1942.
“A highly caricatured Japanese soldier grins before a lighted match.” c 1942. George C. Marshall Foundation
Poster encouraging use of “fag bag”
“Poster encouraging use of “fag bag” for disposal of matches, showing stylized Japanese soldier standing behind a tree with a match, with the rising sun in the background.” Louis Hirshman / Library of Congress

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