MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: An ad campaign involving Bambi led to the creation of Smokey Bear.
There’s little doubt that famous comic and cartoon characters are highly effective when used as advertising spokespeople. In fact, in many cases, the characters become practically synonymous with the products they promote. I sometimes wonder if more kids are familiar with the Flintstones through Flintstones chewable vitamins (and that awesome “We are Flintstones kids!” jingle) than they are with the animated series (at least children’s vitamins are a huge step up from when the Flintstones used to advertise Winston cigarettes). That kind of advertising also works outside of the private sector, as cartoon and comic characters have proved time and again to be helpful in promoting government projects and charitable works (like Dennis the Menace and Mafalda’s campaigns for UNICEF).
Often, the government will try to create its own character; one of the most famous is Smokey Bear, with his classic phrase “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” However, Smokey Bear wasn’t the first choice to warn children about the danger of forest fires. Read on to learn how the classic Walt Disney character Bambi ultimately led to the creation of Smokey Bear!
The U.S. government has often turned to the entertainment industry to help promote projects and products. For instance, a number of television series over the years have done special episodes trying to sell savings bonds (I covered one of the strangest in a recent TV Legend, as Robert Young gave us the darkest episode of “Father Knows Best” ever). Walt Disney, for his part, was always quite willing to help out, including using his famous cartoon characters to promote government projects (Disney was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary for a Donald Duck cartoon designed to explain the new income tax rules). One of the areas in which Disney’s interests coincided with the United States government was in the prevention of forest fires.
In the early days of the American involvement in World War II, there was a great fear of fire in California. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine bombarded an oil field along the California coast (close to Santa Monica). While the fear of forest fires was always present, it was now intensified, particularly because, due to the war, there were fewer people available to fight blazes. The Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign was formed to deal with these fears, using slogans like “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.”
At the same time, Disney had released in 1942 the film “Bambi,” where the dangers of forest fires were highlighted in a memorable sequence.
Disney himself was very worried about fires in California. So in 1944, he agreed to allow the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign to use Bambi for promotional purposes for a year. The campaign was a great success, proving that a cartoon character was definitely the way to go. With the loss of Bambi ahead of them in 1945, however, they had to come up with a new spokesperson/animal. So on Aug. 9, 1944, they authorized the creation of Smokey Bear. Albert Stahle delivered the first drawing of Smokey in October of that year, and Smokey Bear made his debut soon after, taking over from Bambi as the sole spokesanimal (although Bambi has returned to make some joint promotional appearances over the years).
In 1947, “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires!” debuted as Smokey’s slogan. Do note that that slogan is now out of date, as clearly not ALL forest fires are bad, so the slogan has been changed to “Remember … only YOU can prevent wildfires” (emphasis added).
Smokey Bear has become one of the most successful advertising creations of all-time and he owes his creation to that little animated fawn, Bambi.
The legend is…
Thanks to Peter A. Thomas, Robert S. McAlpine and Kelvin Hirsch’s book Fire in the Forest (about the misinformation out there about forest fires) for some of the information for this piece and thanks to SmokeyBear.com for some more information.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!
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