An influential icon celebrates 75 years

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/16/19

I try to avoid scoffing — it just doesn’t seem a nice or proper thing to do ­— but scoff probably best describes my reaction to the controversy, in the early ‘90s, that bubbled up at the …

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An influential icon celebrates 75 years

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I try to avoid scoffing — it just doesn’t seem a nice or proper thing to do ­— but scoff probably best describes my reaction to the controversy, in the early ‘90s, that bubbled up at the time around Joe Camel.

The cigarette advertising ungulate, introduced in the U.S. in 1988 by R.J. Reynolds to promote its Camel brand, first came under fire after a 1991 article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association relating findings from a study that determined that by age 6, almost as many children could identify the suave, tuxedoed cartoon Joe Camel (a weird hybrid of James Bond and livestock with cigarettes) as could identify Mickey Mouse with the Disney Channel.

Mounting evidence that Joe Camel was an attempt by the cigarette-maker to attract young smokers to the addictive habit surfaced and eventually, under pressure from a variety of forces, including a pending lawsuit, R.J. Reynolds voluntarily ended the Joe Camel ad campaign in 1997.

I don’t quibble with the result (which was the death of Joe Camel, whom I never had an ounce of use for in the first place) but at the time, I scoffed at the Joe Camel saga, thinking — naively, I know now — that few people, young or old, could be lured into a behavior by an anthropomorphic character, especially one as grossly ridiculous as Joe Camel.

The problem was, I just hadn’t thought it through.

It took a recent birthday celebration for another anthropomorphic character for me to fully consider the impact — especially on a young person — a cartoon character can make.

The birthday observance, on Aug. 9, was in honor of Joe Camel’s polar opposite: the esteemed Smokey the Bear.

Save for their shared characteristics — both are cartoons, both favor human clothes to their natural hides, both are verbally articulate, and both birthed to promote something — the two characters couldn’t be farther apart.

I won’t invoke Joe’s name here again, for we all know what his purpose on Earth was and there’s no need to mention him further.

In contrast, for the past 75 years, Smokey the Bear has sold only one thing: a good idea.

The mascot of wildfire prevention in the United States since his creation in 1944, Smokey turned 75 last Friday, continuing his reign as the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history.

“Smokey Bear is one of the world’s most recognizable and lovable characters,” said N.C. Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Mike Causey. “He’s been educating American children and families for generations about their role in preventing wildfires and Smokey’s message is just as relevant and urgent today as it was in 1944.”

I can’t scoff at Causey’s statement, but I can attest to it; and celebrating Smokey’s birthday has made me realize (with no scoffing) that a cartoon mascot can be very influential.

Smokey certainly influenced me.

For my 6th birthday, among the gifts I received was a Little Golden Book entitled “Smokey the Bear and the Campers.”

I became an instant young fan of Smokey, reading my new book repeatedly, studying the illustrations, and absorbing its messages, all of them good. Of course, it dealt with the prevention of wildfires and offered lots of tips for us humans to follow to do just that. But the book was also full of useful tips for camping and even for finding your way back to civilization, if you should ever be lost in the woods.

Now out of print, copies of “Smokey the Bear and the Campers” fetch on the used book market a lot more money today than the volume’s original cover price of 39 cents. The book’s enduring availability, even at a steep after-market price, tells me people are still hungry for Smokey’s patient wisdom.

Around the same summer I received my copy of “Smokey and the Bear and the Campers,” I also acquired a Smokey the Bear bendable rubber figure. I played with it so much during that long-distant summer, one of Smokey’s arms eventually fell off, revealing the thin piece of wire at the toy’s heart that gave the rubber toy its flexibility.

What was left of that toy eventually went into a landfill, and I outgrew the need to compulsively re-read the book about the campers, but Smokey’s impact has stayed with me all these decades later.

I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to admit that I absorbed those fire prevention lessons from Smokey the Bear, whom I considered a hero, then and now, and thanks to Smokey have applied them throughout my life, including an extensive camping phase I went through that lasted for years.

Though a fan, I hadn’t kept up with Smokey’s birthdays over those many years and was a bit surprised to hear the news of his 75th birthday last week. I hadn’t thought of Smokey as being quite so old, or maybe I thought he should be older; but my surprise was accompanied by delight that at the three-quarters-of-a-century mark, the iconic character is still enduring, is still celebrated, and is still continuing — I hope, anyway — to be an influence for good with his simple and important message: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

It’s amazing what a mere cartoon can do.


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