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This vintage public service announcement shows Smokey Bear explaining his message of fire prevention. Nowadays the iconic bear is turning to Facebook and Twitter.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 8/7/2009 10:33:46 AM ET 2009-08-07T14:33:46

“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” It may seem hard to believe, but our friend Smokey Bear has been delivering that serious message for 65 years.

And that reminder about personal responsibility is as important as ever these days. So, to get the word out, Smokey came to the TODAY show Friday, where he received a congratulatory jar of birthday honey from Al Roker on Rockefeller Plaza. Alongside the big guy for the grand occasion was Priscilla Natkins, director of client services for the Ad Council.

Effective symbol
The most iconic image in fire-fighting history has been the furry face of woodland fire prevention since he became the spokesbear back on August 9, 1944. In fact, Smokey’s work has been the longest running public service advertising (PSA) campaign in U.S. history.

“The big misconception is that most wildfires are caused by lightning or other natural causes,” Natkins told Roker. “The truth is nearly nine in 10 — or 88 percent — are caused by people.” Smokey nodded emphatically.

These days, Smokey is as recognized in the fire prevention business as Madonna in the self-promotion industry. He’s currently one of the most recognizable figures in America … ranking right beside Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus.

And his enduring message seems imprinted on the brains of Americans of any generation. The phrase “Only you can prevent forest fires” is recognized by 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of kids, according to the Ad Council.

And it’s not just smoke and mirrors: The big guy has had a huge impact on the cause. Since Smokey came on the scene, his message about wildfire prevention has helped to reduce the number of acres burned by wildfires each year, from about 22 million back when he was just a cub in 1944 to an average of 7 million today.

Yet even though he’s now reached the traditional retirement age, Smokey isn’t going into hibernation. He's adapting to modern times and getting the word out to as many people as possible.

Smokey gets hip
Smokey has more than 6,300 fans on his own Facebook page, and has just launched profile pages on Twitter, MySpace and YouTube to get his message to where today’s audience will most easily find it. In fact, this week, in honor of Smokey's 65th, you can log on to Facebook and vote for your favorite Smokey Bear PSA.

Smokey’s message has been massaged over the years, but its importance and impact have never cooled. The Smokester’s original catchphrase was: Smokey Says … “Care Will Prevent 9 Out of 10 Forest Fires.” That was changed in 1947 to “Remember … Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Most recently, in 2000, it was modified again to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires,” in response to the massive national outbreak of wildfires and to address the broader notion that “wildfire” refers to any uncontrolled outdoor fire.

YouTube
Smokey’s message is moving from vingage public service announcements like this one to new media like Facebook and Twitter, but its importance remains the same.
These days, Smokey’s got a new campaign that launches with his 65th birthday on Sunday. The new TV and radio ads recognize the big bruin’s birthday and remind folks to focus on their individual responsibility to help prevent wildfires.

The new ads come with modern lingo, encouraging young adults to “Get Your Smokey On!” Translation? They should join Smokey and speak up when the careless actions of others may put the forest — and all of us — in danger.

In short, Smokey may be 65, but his message hasn’t cooled with age.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Happy birthday to Smokey Bear!

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