Smokey Bear Adapts to New Tech as He Turns 75

August 9, 2019

Smokey Bear, the American wildfire prevention icon, made his first appearance on a 1944 Department of Agriculture poster. Now 75, he's largely kept to his famous refrain — its current iteration is "only you can prevent wildfires" — but that doesn't mean the bear hasn't gotten on Twitter or dipped his paw into facial recognition technology.

"For 75, he's an early adapter," Ad Council CEO and President Lisa Sherman told Cheddar. Smokey Bear's campaign is the longest in the public service announcement non-profit's history.

"He's allowed to stay relevant because he's adapting to new technologies, and he's active on social media. He's evolved really well over the years, although his message has absolutely stayed the same," she said.

According to his official website, Smokey Bear (or Smokey the Bear) was born in the 1940s, during the height of World War II, as part of a Forest Service poster and stamp campaign meant to raise awareness for wildfire prevention.

He quickly grew more popular, appearing on radio advertisements in the 1950s. Smokey made his television debut the following decade.

"Smokey is relevant because he's become basically a pop culture icon. Generations of people have grown up with his important message," Sherman says. "His famous phrase is truly part of the cultural lexicon."

In addition to an active Instagram and Twitter presence ⁠— where the bear is nearing 50,000 followers ⁠— Smokey also debuted his first use of facial recognition earlier this year.

The new campaign features an animated emoji that uses facial recognition to blend Smokey's face with celebrities' voices and mannerisms, including Betty White and Stephen Colbert.

The Smokey Bear campaign has been effective, with Wildfire Prevention Specialist Sheryl Page telling Cheddar that "we have seen a really dramatic decline in human-caused fires over the years."

Still, of the wildfires that do occur, nine out of 10 are caused by people.

Wildfires have also gotten worse, the World Economic Forum notes, with California suffering its worst wildfire ever (by acreage) in 2018.

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