Smokey Bear turns 75 and gets new voices from Stephen Colbert, Al Roker and others

He started as a poster character. He found his way on to stamps, into print ads and television commercials over the past 75 years, and now Smokey Bear has become an animated emoji voiced by several celebrities.

In honor of Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday (August 9, 2019) the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council have teamed up with FCB – the original agency to work on Smokey – to celebrate the nation’s favorite bear. To ensure that Smokey Bear’s important message of wildfire prevention is heard throughout the nation, Stephen Colbert, Al Roker and Jeff Foxworthy have joined the historic campaign, lending their voices to help expand on Smokey’s iconic catchphrase through the use of facial recognition and voice technologies.

For years, through the assured voice of actor Sam Elliott, Smokey Bear has only said five words: “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Now, to complement this signature message, Smokey’s friends are stepping up to say more about wildfire prevention on his behalf and help millions of Americans understand the importance of the issue, especially as wildfires become more widespread and deadly. Utilizing facial recognition and mapping technology, coupled with instantly recognizable celebrity voices, the animated emoji campaign has enabled Smokey’s famous friends to speak through him and further raise awareness of fire safety and wildfire prevention, in an effort to reduce the incidence of unplanned human-caused wildfires.

Colbert’s effort finds him calling himself ‘Stephen Col-bear’ as he says that he’s filling in for Smokey. He states that 90% of wildfires are caused by humans being careless. “I guess Billy (Joel) was wrong. We did start the fire,” he states. The video shows the animated head of Smokey against outdoor backdrops. Foxworthy and Roker also add their own signature spins to the animations.

Updating such an iconic character for the digital era was “daunting,” according to Ari Halper, chief creative officer at FCB New York. “But at the same time inspiring. Strong creatives typically like a good challenge and this was definitely one to live up to,” he told The Drum.

Halper added that Smokey had started to lose his relevance a bit over the years, having been around so long that “people just assumed that his message was the same all these years.”

One of the ways FCB brought Smokey’s voice back was “based on a killer strategic insight. It was that when you tell people to be careful with fire, it’s sort of like driving, everyone thinks they’re a great driver (‘it’s the other guys who are terrible’), everyone thinks they’re careful with fire. The twist is that it’s not how to be careful with fire, but why to be careful with fire. Because that place where you like to go hiking every weekend, that place where you take your dog, that lake where you go during the summer – all these things you love are at risk if people aren’t careful. That’s what started to make it relevant personally for people,” said Halper.

The ways FCB is helping make Smokey Bear relevant is turning the message over to select voices saying why they care and why fire safety important to them. That also involved “sneaking in things he’d been saying along the way that got lost in the shuffle, like that fires don’t start just with camp fires anymore, they start by chains dragging behind a trailer hitch on your car and it causes sparks on the road, or parking a car on tall dry grass, where the hot engine can cause the grass to catch fire. That kind of stuff was getting lost,” Halper mentioned.

Smokey Bear celebrated his 73rd birthday with a video campaign geared towards millennials that saw Smokey show people how to safely deal with outdoor fires. It was hip and fun, but Halper said it didn’t quite resonate as best as they thought it might, which is why they changed it up this time around. “One other thing we tried to do in this round, was bring a little tech and interactivity to it.”

To find the talent, all the organizations involved made a huge outreach to celebrities. Luckily, the ask was only for an hour of their time, so they were able to get Colbert, Roker and Foxworthy. After that, it was into the studio to record. “They go in, they’re in front of the [animated emoji] app, they do their thing. Each of them…it’s very funny, if they were to see each other they would kind of laugh at themselves that they reacted the same way when they got in front of it. They were all like little kids, playing like in a mirror…making faces and seeing what the [animated emoji] did with them, and they really got into it. Then the hour flew by and we were done,” said Halper, adding that they have a few more in the hopper, including getting a woman to record one.

Taking Smokey to the social digital realm, the team thought, was a really fresh way to bring relevance to one of the oldest icons in advertising. “The big thing for us was not just to do a fun ad, but something that would really up the game and become relevant again, to get people to actually listen to what Smokey is saying. By the change in his voice, there’s already a bit of a head turn. The fact that he is an animated emoji, the interactivity of it. We wanted to make something that would truly engage people with his message.”

Aside from the animated emoji videos, Smokey will have more to celebrate during his 75th. Halper said Smokey is up for a star on the walk of fame, plus there’s talk he may get his own Macy’s balloon. “Then in August around his birthday we’re working on releasing his [animated emoji] to the masses so that everybody can play with him and send their own messages about why protecting our great outdoors is important to them.”

Said Susan Credle, FCB global chief creative officer: “75 years ago, FCB, in partnership with what would become the Ad Council, gave birth to Smokey Bear. All these years, he’s been reminding us that ‘Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.’ In other words, there’s a little Smokey Bear in all of us. This year, we are asking people to listen to their inner Smokey Bear. People sharing stories about why they love the outdoors and how they protect our country’s beautiful wildlife.”

Smokey Bear first appeared on a forest fire prevention campaign poster in 1944. Two years later, he and his message were featured on a series of stamps, making his way into households nationwide. Starting in the 1950s, Smokey Bear made his debut first in radio commercials and then on television, paired with a number of well-known actors and celebrities including B.B. King, Barbara Stanwyck, Betty White, Dolly Parton, Leonard Nimoy, Ray Charles and others. In the decades since first being introduced, the beloved icon has continued to be featured in TV, radio, print and on posters, stamps, billboards, memorabilia and other forms of media. First voiced by Washington radio personality Jackson Weaver, Smokey Bear’s message has been brought to life for the past 12-plus years by Sam Elliott.

See the work and vote for the campaign by clicking on the Creative Works box below.

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