SMOKEY BEAR WANTS TO CATCH FIRE

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At age 50, Smokey Bear is coming out of hibernation.

The U.S. Forest Service wants to aggressively develop its spokesbear into a host of new licensed products that could bring in more than $2 million next year alone. That would challenge the total earned since the first time Smokey was licensed 42 years ago.

"We're trying to bring Smokey into the 21st century ... ," said Joseph Pellegrino, VP-licensing director at Cambridge Consulting Corp., McLean, Va., the first company hired to seek out new licenses for the bear. "You're going to see a lot of Smokey merchandise-a lot more than even seen before in recognizable retail stores."

The merchandise will hit shelves this fall in national park gift shops and at retailers including J.C. Penney Co., Toys "R" Us and Neiman Marcus Co. Licensed items will include audio and videocassettes, bed and bath accessories, caps, hiking boots, knapsacks, plush dolls, raingear, T-shirts and even a prepaid telephone debit calling card.

In true Smokey fashion, royalties of about 6% will benefit fire prevention education efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.

"Licensing ... does expand our opportunity to reach a broad segment with a fire prevention message," said Elsie Cunningham, the Forest Service's acting national fire prevention officer. "We've always had product out in the marketplace, though the public at large probably isn't aware of it. We're just going to become more visible."

But product advertising-especially on TV and radio-will be limited, Ms. Cunningham said.

The Forest Service hopes to avoid problems the Department of Transportation and Advertising Council had in 1992 getting a public service announcement campaign on the air. The Big 3 networks refused to air the Vince & Larry crash dummies campaign for car seat-belt safety after Tyco Toys began network TV advertising for its Incredible Crash Dummies, a Transportation Department licensee. The networks thought the PSAs were helping to sell a commercial product (AA, Dec. 14, 1992).

Licensed Smokey merchandise is expected to bring in about $750,000 to the Forest Service for 1994 and at least $2 million in 1995, Mr. Pellegrino said.

The new push could make Smokey one of the more lucrative government-related licensed programs.

The quasigovernmental U.S. Postal Service began pushing its expanded stamp licensing program in 1993 with the introduction of the Elvis Presley stamp, which doubled revenue to about $2 million.

The National Crime Prevention Council, a non-profit group acting in partnership with Department of Justice, gets about $400,000 a year in royalties for licenses for McGruff the anti-crime dog and his nephew, Scruff.

However, the commercialization of an American icon like Smokey Bear makes some uncomfortable.

"Is the USA becoming USA Inc.?" asked Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Commercialism. "Will we license the image of Uncle Sam and require companies to pay for it?"

Rudy Wendelin, 84, a longtime illustrator of Smokey who retired from the Forest Service in 1973, also is worried Smokey could get too commercialized.

"All my life I helped put out education material that was tax-supported or state-supported [and] given away as a public service," he said. "To sell an item to do the same thing is not something I'm familiar with."

Smokey was created on Aug. 9, 1944, as part of a wartime campaign by the Forest Service, the Wartime Advertising Council (now the Ad Council) and Foote, Cone & Belding, Los Angeles.

Smokey became a living symbol in 1950 when a burned cub was found clinging to a tree after a New Mexico forest fire. The cub was nursed back to health and housed at the National Zoo in Washington.

Even this poignant tale is grist for Cambridge Consulting, which is trying to sell the story of the live Smokey to a film studio.

The Ad Council's Smokey Bear fire prevention PSA campaign got $78 million in media placements last year, more than any other Ad Council effort. FCB still handles the pro bono campaign, one of the longest running in U.S. ad history.

John O'Toole, former president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, worked on the Smokey campaign from 1964 to 1985 at FCB. He credits the Forest Service for the campaign's longevity.

"Nobody said, `Let's kill the campaign, it's been running long enough,' unlike a commercial [ad] account," he said. "[Smokey] was treated like a brand in the beginning, built like a brand and supported as a brand."

Kate Fitzgerald contributed to this story.

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