Includes Details of Smokey Bear FBI File


World's Longest-Running Public Service Ad Campaign Shovels On

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- Smokey Bear, one of the world's most recognized advertising icons, is 60 years old today. And, amazingly, the ad agency that started it all back in 1944 -- Foote Cone & Belding -- is

1971, 'Wristwatch'
1973, 'Emptiness'
1973, 'Mask'
1974, 'Thanks From All of Us'
1975, 'Great Americans'
1977, 'Only You'
1973, Jonathan Winters

still cranking out the Smokey campaign's creative work for the Advertising Council and U.S. Agriculture Department's Forest Service.

"FCB is the longest single agency relationship in our history," said Ellyn Fisher, director of corporate communications at the Advertising Council.

Six decades of pro bono
As an ongoing pro bono project during the last six decades, FCB has produced 70 radio spots, 40 TV commercials and more than 100 print and outdoor billboard advertisements in support of the Forest Service's Smokey Bear fire prevention program. Meanwhile, during those 60 years, media companies have donated well over $1 billion in radio and TV broadcast time and print ad placements promoting the bear and his fire-prevention message.

Today, the Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council sponsor celebrations of Smokey's 60th anniversary at 25 parks and other facilities, from a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park to the Custer National Forest in Montana. The main national observance is taking place in the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, Calif.

All of this for a bear that doesn't really exist but is, along with Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse, one of the most vividly remembered fictional characters in American culture.

Wartime roots
The idea for Smokey Bear was born out of military concern in World War II, evolving from a civil defense mobilization response to the possibility of "fire storm" attacks on the U.S. homeland by the Japanese. Fire storm warfare was an old military concept given new potential by the era's long-distance aircraft and high-tech naval systems. Those military tools provided a means for efficiently spreading fire in an unprecedented manner across large geographic regions. It was a concept the Allied Forces would later use to horrific effect on the German city of Dresden as well as Japan's capital, Tokyo.

In 1941 the Western regions of the U.S. were particularly vulnerable to fire war because of the vast forests that surrounded their inhabited areas, along with regular high wind conditions and frequent dry seasons. The U.S. government took the fire storm attack threat seriously when, just weeks after Pearl Harbor, a lone Japanese submarine surfaced to shell an oil refinery near Santa Barbara on the southern coast of California.

Start of Advertising Council
That attack occurred at nearly the same moment the chiefs from advertising agencies across the country were opening the Washington headquarters of a new organization -- the Advertising Council -- that would apply the power of marketing communications to the task of mobilizing national morale and manpower in wartime.

The Forest Service itself started the first wartime public awareness program focused on fire-fighting. One early tagline it used was "Careless matches aid the Axis."

By 1944, working as part of the Advertising Council's effort, Foote Cone & Belding crafted the concept of Smokey Bear into an advertising campaign with a slogan that would become one of the most famous in the history of advertising: "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires."

Old as TV advertising itself
Because it started at the same time the business of commercial TV did, the extensive archive of Smokey Bear TV ads today mirrors the evolution of the medium's technology and creativity. Seven typical spots from the past can be viewed in the left-hand features box above.

They demonstrate how the economy-minded Ad Council creative effort produced some of the most memorable -- and most forgettable -- TV commercials of the last half-century. Some ads fawn effusively over their fictional icon. One 1975 spot called "Great Americans" heralded the country's upcoming bicentennial celebration by somberly placing Smokey Bear in the pantheon of historic heavies including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Others phases of the campaign sought to leave Smokey out altogether in favor of new kinds of celebrity spokespersons. One of the oddest of these was a 1977 commercial starring Jonathan Winters cast as a pine tree offering his version of a fire-prevention message.

From its inception, the Smokey Bear icon was jealously and diligently guarded as a federal government treasure. In 1953 Congress passed a law that still makes it a federal crime to "knowingly and for profit manufacture, reproduce or use the character of 'Smokey Bear'" without a license.

Smokey's FBI file
At the same time, Smokey Bear became the subject of an FBI file, which has obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Photo: Hoag Levins
In 1953 the FBI was assigned the task of protecting the Smokey Bear brand image. The Bureau's Smokey Bear file was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Click to see larger FBI file images.

That FOIA document indicates that in the 1950s, the Smokey Bear ad image was of such significance to federal authorities that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI G-man were officially charged with protecting its integrity.

A 1953 internal memo sent to special agents in FBI bureaus across the country informed them that their duties now included responding to incidents of "unauthorized use of Smokey Bear."

The records show that one of the first suspects targeted for FBI scrutiny was a 1953 quarter-page ad in the San Antonio Light newspaper. Placed by Joskey's of Texas department store, it offered a 15-inch stuffed teddy bear wearing a felt Smokey Bear ranger hat and holding a long-handled shovel.

A Dec. 27, 1954, letter from the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois praised the FBI's Chicago office for its "prompt, severe and unalterably fair" pursuit of another Smokey Bear investigation. It notes that the Chicago unit's swift actions "constitute an excellent guide for the handling of any future violations of this type."

In providing the file, modern-day FBI FOIA officials have dutifully blacked out the names of the FBI agents involved in these Smokey Bear capers of the 1950s.

Smokey licensing rights today
Today, Lisboa Inc. of Washington, D.C., is the official licensing agent retained by the Forest Service for all Smokey-related brand licensing. Its current online directory lists more than 50 authorized vendors making a wide array of authorized Smokey Bear products from coloring books and bolo ties to lunch boxes and temporary tattoos along with all the de rigueur souvenir shop hats, t-shirts and posters. The full list can be seen at

According to Lisboa's Smokey Bear licensing manager, Max Farrow, the agency takes in about $100,000 in licensing fees a year, of which it keeps about 30%. The balance helps fund the Forest Service's Forest Fire Prevention Program.

The agency only recently won the account away from long-time incumbent Cambridge Consulting Corporation of McLean, Va. Mr. Farrow said Lisboa is aggressively recruiting more licensees in an effort to boost licensing revenue.

But don't expect to see Smokey wearing your brand of athletic shoes or drinking your cola in a commercial anytime soon. Smokey's image may not be used in any manner that endorses a product.

The federal statue that still defines the limits of what Lisboa can license cites the government's primary goal as protecting Smokey Bear's name as a public service figure and making the image a standard of "high quality and good taste."

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Hoag Levins is the editor and executive producer of

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