Smokey: the possibility of good propaganda

So, I was surfing Youtube this week, trying to find some decent mystery shows to watch, and almost every other flick I clicked was fronted with the Smokey the Bear ‘bear-hug’ commercial. Now, normally, I’d be annoyed. But the commercial was not only quick and witty, but, as it happens, I have a peculiar soft spot in my hear for Smokey the Bear. Most of the educational films we were shown in grammar school were dorky and embarrassing – dummies without seat-belts crashing through windows; children “just like you!” disappearing after talking with strangers; and supposed sex-ed films with unbelievably simplified diagrams of internal anatomy having nothing to do, as far as any of us could tell, with those changes of feeling we were undergoing during what I would later learn (from a comedy in a theater) was “pooberty.”

The Smokey the Bear films, by contrast, were usually exciting – images of blazing forest fires after all! – and they were set in the beautiful wilds of the Western State and National Parks. Also, their narration was usually straight-forward and level-headed, and didn’t seem to treat us as potential victims or ignorant innocents. (The one exception to this is a “Story of Smokey” film narrated by Dennis Weaver and that’s all it is, Weaver narrating – Smokey doesn’t even make an appearance!)

And then there’s Smokey himself. The broadcast period of Saturday morning cartoons on television, aimed at kids, was laced with ‘educational’ commercials (actually, at the time, required by FCC regulations). Most people my generation remember the “Schoolhouse Rock” series of ads, with their singing scrolls of paper or dancing numerals; these never impressed me. But I always paid attention to Smokey the Bear ads. That’s because Smokey never talked down to us. His message was simple and direct, delivered in serious adult tones that reminded us that we could be thoughtful and responsible.

Smokey is of course a propaganda mascot. There’s no denying that. His entire reason for being is to remind audiences of the seriousness of his cause, by giving his audience an emblematic figure to picture along with the words and the ideas they are intended to evoke: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” And there’s nothing wrong or insidious about this message. It is true that most forest fires are caused by humans acting irresponsibly. And it is also true that acting responsibly around fire does effectively prevent wildfires.

This of course raises questions worth thinking about. We have – rightfully – grown suspicious of propaganda in all forms and for all causes, concerned that it is composed to subvert our reasoning and play on our baser emotions. But could there be ‘good’ propaganda? Could there be propaganda that spoke a reasonable message and called forth not only our better emotional responses, but our reasoning as well?

Smokey reminds us that we are individuals with responsibilities, but exactly as such, part of a greater whole – a whole that includes other humans, of course, but also including the living material world around us – the trees, the grass, the bees and bugs, the deer, the coyote, the bear. Smokey insists that all in this world have some intrinsic value – and he does so, not by appealing to our aesthetic sense (it’s not about ‘pretty flowers’), but to our sympathies, our ability to recognize other sentient beings as having as having value and sense similar to our own. (One of the simplest – and most powerful – of the Smokey commercials had him standing before a burnt-out forest; the camera zoomed into his eyes, where a great tear was beginning to run down his cheeks; as his mournful voice reminded us “only you.”)

And of course, Smokey appeals to our pride, our self-esteem – our desire to think of our actions as responsible, and ourselves as worthwhile.

It’s a total win-win communication. The U.S. Forest Service gets more conscientious visitors to the park and wild-lands they need to maintain, and young people are invited to feel themselves as worthy and responsible participants in a larger community, and a larger world.

Now, if anyone can find fault with this, let them spell it out. For myself, I stand with Smokey.


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