Clad in his signature park ranger hat, belt buckle, and jeans, Smokey Bear is best known for his timeless message: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
Created by the U.S. Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and Ad Council, the character is considered the longest-running public service campaign in American history, and one of the most successful.
But Greenville’s Matt Moreau and Cory Godbey are giving the beloved bear a makeover.
Moreau is the owner of Dapper Ink Custom Outfitters, which produces screen-printed apparel and signage. Godbey is a freelance illustrator whose work has appeared in picture books, covers, comics, animated shorts, and films. The duo has created a special collection of illustrations and goods to promote Smokey’s message.
The collection is the first of its kind in at least 50 years, according to Moreau.
“Smokey has taught countless children and adults about fire safety since the 1940s, and his message is as relevant today as it was then,” said Moreau. “We’re just breathing some new life into him with this collection.”
Moreau met Godbey in college about a decade ago, and they’ve since embarked on various outdoor adventures across the country, including a 10-day hiking and climbing trip through Yosemite National Park in California.
The avid outdoorsmen got the idea for a Smokey Bear collection last fall when dozens of wildfires spread across the southern Appalachian Mountains, charring thousands of acres and spreading smoke across several states.
“Some of our friends and family had to evacuate their homes,” said Moreau. “Many of the fires were caused by arson or carelessness. We wanted to raise awareness about fire safety, and Smokey was a natural choice for the collection.”
The iconic bear in blue jeans was created as a mascot for the Forest Service in response to fears that enemy shelling during World War II would cause fires in the West while all the firefighters were overseas.
In 1942, a Japanese submarine actually surfaced on the coast of southern California and fired shells on an oil field close to the Los Padres National Forest. Protection of these forests from uncontrolled fire became a matter of national importance.
Wildfires can burn millions of acres of land a year, so the Forest Service created Smokey to help spread the word on how to prevent fires. That means no playing with matches and always making sure your campfire is out when you’re done with it.
In 1944, the creation of Smokey Bear was authorized by the Forest Service, and the first poster was created artist Albert Staehle. The poster depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The character soon became popular, and his image has since appeared on television ads, milk cartons, comic books, and more.
At first Smokey’s slogan was, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.” But in 1947, his slogan changed to, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.” In 2001, his words were slightly modified, and “forest fires” became “wildfires.”
Smokey’s image, which also includes a shovel, hasn’t changed much. Federal law places tight restrictions on how the iconic character can be used and what he can say. He is allowed to utter just one line: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
Moreau applied for a license through The Metis Group, which oversees licensing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, last year. In the meantime, Godbey started brainstorming and drafting illustrations.
He’s since produced five illustrations depicting aspects of Smokey. One illustration, for instance, depicts Smokey as a caretaker bandaging a smaller cub. Another depicts Smokey as a protector, carrying other animals out of a wildfire.
“I wanted to respect the original fire prevention campaign,” said Godbey. “I didn’t want to cartwheel into this thing. It was a matter of research and digging into the history of the character and reading about him.”
Moreau, who recently received the license, plans to incorporate Godbey’s illustrations on shirts, coffee mugs, hats, and posters. The collection will be sold through The Landmark Project, which is Dapper Ink’s outdoor brand.
The Landmark Project, which launched in 2013, sells shirts and apparel representing the Upstate’s outdoors destinations and National Parks, ranging from Greenville’s Paris Mountain State Park to California’s Yosemite National Park.
The brand’s Smokey collection should be released in spring 2018, according to Moreau.
Moreau is working to secure a deal with REI that would allow the outdoor retailer to sell the Smokey collection exclusively for six months. He also plans to sell the collection through The Landmark Project’s online store and 75 retailers.
About 20 percent of each shirt sale will go to the Forest Service, according to Moreau.
“There’s no better way to honor Smokey than by supporting the people who are working to maintain our forests and parks,” said Moreau. “They’ve been underfunded for decades.”
The Forest Service, founded in 1905, manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. The agency’s budget for firefighting has ballooned from 16 to 52 percent since 1995. It has to borrow money from other forest health programs, which means less money for operations that actually keep the forests around.
The Landmark Project’s Smokey Bear collection will be available for at least three years, according to Moreau. “We’re going to monitor the success of the release and hopefully grow the collection into a more diverse product line.”
He said the collection could eventually include children’s coloring books, comic strips, storybooks, and more.
Smokey was originally targeted toward children with his friendly image and appearance in comic strips. His popularity among kids grew so strong that he eventually got a costume in the 1950s. In 2014, Smokey got a social media and marketing makeover that was geared toward young adults with the slogan, “Get your Smokey on.”
The Ad Council reports 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of children ages five to 13 can recognize Smokey’s message without prompting. However, the character’s Q Score, which the advertising industry uses as a measure of a brand’s likability and awareness among consumers, remains a mystery, as he was last measured in 1996.
“Smokey is much more recognized by adults,” said Moreau. “I’m hoping this collection makes him more relevant among younger kids and millennials.”
For more information, visit thelandmarkproject.com.
The Real Smokey Bear
In the spring of 1950, a black bear cub was caught in a wildfire that burned 17,000 acres across the Lincoln National Forest, which is located in New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains.
The cub climbed a blackened tree to escape the fire, but his paws and hind legs were badly burned. As the flames dissipated, firefighters rescued the cub from the tree and brought him back to a ranger station to tend to his injuries.
They named the bear cub “Smokey” after the fictional character. After the burns healed, Smokey was sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he became the living symbol of forest fire prevention. In fact, Smokey received so many letters the United States Postal Service had to give him a separate ZIP code.
On May 2, 1975, Smokey was retired from his public duties and he died on Nov. 5 of that same year. His remains were returned to Capitan, N.M, and buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park.
After the original Smokey retired, another orphaned bear took his place. Smokey Bear II died in the summer of 1990. The Forest Service has since decided not to replace the living symbol of Smokey at the National Zoo.