Jewish World Review Sept. 5, 2002 / 28 Elul, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | I understand why they're doing it -- but this change in the Smokey Bear slogan is troubling nonetheless.
Quick -- what was the old slogan?
You know the answer:
"Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires."
It was one of the great slogans in the history of American advertising. You had a loveable pitchman -- Smokey Bear; you had a national problem: forests catching on fire; you had a strong piece of good advice that put the responsibility on every U.S. citizen.
From newspaper ads to cartoon shorts at drive-in movie theaters (and even the cover of Newsweek), Smokey preached his message. Perfect phrase, perfect plea, perfect wording.
It has now been revised. The new Smokey Bear slogan is: "Only YOU can prevent wildfires." The reason is that "wildfires" is scarier and more descriptive than "forest fires." A forest fire sounds like something that happens hundreds of miles from you; a wildfire sounds like something racing in your direction so that it can kill you.
Studies indicated that the average adult didn't think he or she would or could ever start a wildfire. The old Smokey Bear campaign -- devised during World War II -- had evolved into something that most people considered to be directed at children. "Only YOU can prevent wildfires" sounds more adult than "Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires."
One of the people responsible for the new slogan -- Brad B. McCormick -- was quoted as saying of the new Smokey campaign: "It's much grittier and darker."
Forest fires, with their smoke, have always had more than their share of grit and darkness, but this moves Smokey in a new direction. Smokey now differentiates between a "good fire" and a "bad fire," and talks about how starting controlled fires can reduce the danger of huge wildfires -- while, even if it is true, is a gigantic leap from the old Smokey. The old Smokey would shed a tear at the idea of someone dropping a match in the forest; the new Smokey is open to the idea of helpful fires.
It's all understandable. But what a new competitor to Smokey -- something called Reddy Squirrel -- is telling Americans ...
Well, you would think that what Reddy Squirrel is saying would put Smokey in a fighting mood.
Reddy Squirrel, created by the group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, tells this to Americans:
"No one can prevent forest fires."
This is quite a leap.
"Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires" was like a call to vigilance -- a rallying cry to each citizen. Smokey was saying he needed our help.
But "No one can prevent forest fires"?
To be fair, there is a reason for those words. The message is: Be ready. We're fooling ourselves if we really think that, for all our good intentions, we can prevent forest fires. According to Reddy Squirrel, they're going to happen no matter what. So the best plan is to prepare for them -- they're coming, whether we want them or not.
Yet those words have a sour ring. During World War II, when Smokey was just getting started, another famous phrase was: "Loose lips sink ships." Meaning that if people talked too much about troop movements, the enemy might overhear.
Back then, someone might have come up with an alternate slogan -- "Loose lips don't sink ships, torpedoes do, so be ready" -- but the slogan would have been rejected. Americans liked the idea that if they worked on being quiet, they could save the lives of the troops. They liked the responsibility. The same way they liked the idea that they -- only they -- could prevent forest fires.
It was probably to be expected that in this new era Smokey Bear would not only change his tune, but get some younger competition, although no one would have predicted that the competition would come from a jaded squirrel.
Still, the squirrel's "No one can prevent forest fires" is a pretty downbeat message to be sending out. It is the forest-fire equivalent of: "You can't win." Which, while dark and gritty, doesn't exactly stir the human heart, never mind the heart of an old and endearing bear.
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