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There's More to Smokey Bear Than You Realized

By Rick Horowitz

SOC Melillo Book Cover

Smokey Bear.

McGruff the Crime-Fighting Dog, with his trench coat and attitude.

The Crying Indian surrounded by litter.

You may have thought you knew all there was to know about them—their messages, even their histories. Wendy Melillo thought she did, too; after all, she’d spent years reporting on the advertising industry before joining American University’s School of Communication faculty in 2007.

And you may have thought there wasn’t anything even vaguely controversial about these public service announcements (PSAs), or about the Ad Council, the consortium of talented executives who created and popularized those now-so-familiar characters.

Wendy Melillo thought so, too—until she starting digging through the records for a closer look at these and other campaigns designed by the group.

What she found surprised her and occasionally disturbed her. What looked perfectly warm and fuzzy to the outside world turned out to have plenty of hidden facets and sharp edges. She also uncovered plenty of largely forgotten entertaining stories, and one or two enduring myths in need of correction.

Melillo compiled the fascinating findings in her new book How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns (Smithsonian Books, 2013).  

“It’s not as mom-and-pop-and-apple-pie, as Americana, as many people think,” she says. “A lot of these campaigns have this kind of ‘back story’.”

Patriotic Self-Interest

The Ad Council came together as the United States entered World War II, when the advertising industry itself was under increasing attack here at home for what many considered deceptive practices. To help improve their own public image, America’s “mad” men at the time decided if they couldn’t win over their critics in Washington, they would join forces with them under the guise of assisting with the wartime messaging effort.  

The first result of this marriage of convenience? A certain friendly-looking bear that urged vigilance against forest fires; all that lumber was needed to build America’s fighting ships to take on Germany and Japan. And the rest is advertising history.

“Even though the war ended, that relationship did not and continues to this day,” Melillo says.

A Focus on Individual Responsibility

“Only you can prevent forest fires”—one of the Ad Council’s most enduring messages—later came under fire when environmentalists argued that trying to prevent all forest fires also short-circuited the natural processes of burn-and-renewal that periodically cleaned out the underbrush and prevented far more catastrophic fires when they did occur. For that matter, Americans in certain parts of the country saw Smokey as a stand-in for a federal government that had set aside—“stolen,” in their view—land their families had cultivated for generations. Bullet-ridden posters made it clear that Smokey’s appeal had limits.

The campaign proved to be significant in another way, too, Melillo says; it highlighted what would become the Council’s continuing focus on individual actions.  

Sometimes—as with Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies, urging people to buckle up for safety—it was the right message, properly targeted. Other times, maybe not.  

“People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It” was the message of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. Seems reasonable, but was the Ad Council letting the government—letting entire industries—off the hook? Funders for the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign included Dow Chemical, Glad Products, McDonald’s, Coke, and Pepsi, companies that, as Melillo points out: “have a vested interest in selling packing materials, chemicals and plastic bottles, all of which end up in our garbage stream.”

This PSA Sponored By  

But corporate interests’ influence on Ad Council campaigns didn’t stop there. A typical three-year campaign could cost several million dollars. With each campaign requiring vital financial support and donated labor from the government, “interested” corporate sponsors, and the advertising agencies that represented those corporate sponsors, as well as “donated” airtime to run the PSAs from the TV and radio stations that depended on those corporate sponsors’ advertising dollars—there were places the Ad Council chose not to tread.

“These things don’t exist in a vacuum,” Melillo says. “There are more influences on these campaigns than even I, a skeptical journalist, realized. This is an organization that doesn’t want to anger anyone, wants to be as non-controversial as possible. They constantly walk that tightrope.”

While Melillo doesn’t deny the Ad Council’s many contributions to the public good, she wonders what a group with fewer competing interests and limitations might have produced and been able to accomplish.

“No one is saying the Ad Council isn’t doing good work,” Melillo says. “The question is, what are the ways we can make this better? Do we have to accept those limits?”

But Wait! There’s More!

In the book, Melillo highlights some of the biggest successes as well as some of the most interesting “failures” among the 400-plus Ad Council campaigns launched to date, filling in the missing and fascinating pieces of an underappreciated slice of American cultural history along the way. These include:  

* The well-known "Rosie the Riveter” poster, long a mainstay of self-congratulatory Ad Council publicity materials, had nothing to do with the Ad Council, and had only a minimal effect on drawing women into the workplace during and after World War II.

* Albert Einstein and other Manhattan Project scientists partnered with the Ad Council to create a campaign warning Americans about the dangers of atomic weapons.

* At the height of the Cold War, the CIA—which was prohibited from operating within the United States—used a front-group to funnel money to the Council for a domestic ad campaign against Communism.

* Before the Council came up with “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” for the United Negro College Fund, there was an earlier positioning statement, the wording of which was deemed too controversial.

* The “Crying Indian” wasn’t really an American Indian.