How Did Bambi Lead to the Creation of Smokey the Bear?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: An ad campaign involving Bambi led to the creation of Smokey Bear.

There is little doubt that famous comic and cartoon character are highly effective when used as advertising spokespeople. In fact, in many cases, the characters become practically synonymous with the products that they are promoting. I sometimes wonder if more kids are familiar with the Flintstones through Flintstones chewable vitamins (and that awesome “We are Flintstones kids!” jingle) than they are with the actual Flintstones animated series (at least children’s vitamins are a huge step up from when the Flintstones used to advertise for WInston cigarettes). This kind of advertising also works outside of the private sector, as cartoon and comic characters have proven time and time again to be helpful in promoting government projects and charitable works (like Dennis the Menace and Mafalda’s promotion around the world of UNICEF). Often, the government will try to create their own characters to promote their work. One of the most famous of these characters is Smokey Bear, with his classic phrase “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

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However, Smokey Bear was not the first choice to help let kids know of the danger of forest fires. Read on to learn how the classic Walt Disney character Bambi ultimately led to the creation of Smokey Bear!

The United States government has often turned to the entertainment industry to help do their civic duty through promoting government projects and products. For instance, a number of television series over the years have done special episodes trying to sell U.S. Savings Bonds (I covered one of the strangest in a recent TV Legend, as Robert Young gave us the darkest episode of Father Knows Best ever).

Walt Disney, for his part, was always quite willing to help out the United States Government, including using his famous cartoon characters to promote various government projects (Disney was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary for a Donald Duck cartoon designed to explain the new Income Tax rules). One of the areas where Disney’s interests coincided with the United States government was on the issue of forest fires.

You see, in the early days of the American involvement in World War II, there was a great fear of fire in California. Soon after they attacked Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine attacked an oil field along the California coast (very close to Santa Monica). The United States government had always been against forest fires, but now the fear seemed particularly urgent, particularly since due to the war, there were less people available to FIGHT the fires in the first place. The Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign was formed to deal with these fears, using slogans like “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.”

At the same time, Disney had released in 1942 the film Bambi, where the dangers of forest fires were highlighted in a memorable sequence…

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Disney himself was very worried about fires in California.

So in 1944, Disney agreed to let the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign use Bambi for promotional purposes for a year.

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The campaign was a great success, proving that using a cartoon character was definitely the way to go. With the loss of Bambi ahead of them in 1945, however, they had to come up with a new spokesperson/animal. So on August 9, 1944, they authorized the creation of Smokey Bear. Albert Stahle delivered the first drawing of Smokey in October of that year and Smokey Bear made his debut soon after, taking over from Bambi as the sole spokesanimal (although Bambi has returned to make some joint promotional appearances with Smokey over the years).

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In 1947, “Remember…only YOU can prevent forest fires!” debuted as Smokey’s slogan. Do note that that slogan is now out of date, as clearly not ALL forest fires are bad, so the slogan has been changed to “Remember….only YOU can prevent wildfires” (emphasis added).

Smokey Bear has become one of the most successful advertising creations of all-time and he owes his creation to that little animated fawn, Bambi.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Peter A. Thomas, Robert S. McAlpine and Kelvin Hirsch’s book Fire in the Forest (about the misinformation out there about forest fires) for some of the information for this piece and thanks to SmokeyBear.com for some more information.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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