Wendy Melillo

Journalist. Author. Educator.

An Excerpt From Chapter 3

Smokey Bear: A More Complicated Character Than His Image Depicts.

In 2007 Fire Prevention Program Manager Helene Cleveland, a group of state foresters, and other Forest Service officials listened intently as Draftfcb's Scott Murray presented his ideas for a new Smokey public service ad (PSA), including the same Smokey statue spot that would later draw such a negative response from Nina DiSesa. Murray was new to the Smokey account, as was Cleveland. He worked in Irvine, California, she in Washington D.C. But more than distance separated the two.

Cleveland, in the tradition established by Gifford Pinchot, had entered the Forest Service in 1981 as a forester working in Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest. She became an expert in both forestry and fire management, battling blazes in forests, grasslands, swamps, and peat bogs. She understood the smoldering threat of a dry peat moss bog, but she knew nothing about how advertising was created. Murray, on the other hand, knew how to weave elements of popular culture into successful ads, but he had only limited knowledge of the forests. That became quickly evident to Cleveland when he constantly referred to Smokey as a grizzly bear. He later recalled that, after he had ended his pitch, Cleveland said, "We have a lot of issues here, but the first one is Smokey is not a grizzly bear. He's a black bear."

Everyone cared about creating the right Smokey message, but Cleveland and Murray brought different experiences to the table. In Cleveland's world, having Smokey communicate the right message was critical. To Murray, what mattered was whether the PSA moved the audience or not.

After his statue idea bombed in New York, Murray headed back to Irvine. With less than a month to come up with another Smokey spot, he was back to square one. The researched showed that people started nine out of ten wildfires, with campfires being one of the top three causes of the problem, according to Cleveland. Cigarettes, parking heated cars too close to dry brush, starting terrain vehicles in the wilderness where a spark could ignite, and burning trash in the backyard also played roles.

How could Smokey best communicate the complicated issues involved given the time limits imposed by a TV commercial? There were other special considerations as well. The Smokey Bear Act of 1952 had given control of Smokey and any revenue generated through the marketing of his image to the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. The revenue goes into a fire prevention fund, which can only be used for that purpose. What Smokey can say is carefully controlled. His well-known slogan had changed from "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" to "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires" in 2001.

Murray asked his creative partner Dan Neri: "What would happen if people turned into Smokey?" Advertising concepts always reflect a core idea. The best in the business know that the simplest concepts usually work most effectively. The idea here would be: step into Smokey's shoes. The "Get Your Smokey On" campaign would show people morphing into Smokey as they instructed people to pick up their cigarette butss, not to leave a smoldering camp or bonfire, and to watch how they burn debris in their backyard. "We [were] asking people to become advocates, and the second you take on that role, you become Smokey," Murray explains.