We need a Smokey the Bear-like character to help America tackle COVID-19

  • In our country's history, we've long relied on brand characters to help get us through rough times.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has been an increasingly challenging experience.
  • I've had a hand in influential brand character campaigns, and we need a new character that can energize positivity in these uncertain times.
  • Pat Giles is the Head of Studio at Holler.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Advertising can save the world. No, really! In fact, advertising may be part of the solution to some of our most difficult crises including the current pandemic. History has shown us that what people need is a good brand character wearing a mask. 

I'm talking about characters, not mascots. Mascots are for sports teams, not brands. They represent players, fans, and city loyalties, but not a brand. I have nothing against mascots but I also love brand characters and have worked on many of them as a creative director and animator. What I learned was that a truly great brand character can make me want to eat a particular cereal, buy insurance, and bake dinner rolls. It can make me change my mind and change my behavior. 

An inspirational brand character could be just what we need as a nation to come together at a critical time for public health.  

Over the past 80 years, several fictional brand characters have shifted public consciousness and changed societal behaviors in measurable and important ways, and did so across party lines and above the fray of political lenses. The Ad Council, founded in 1942, was usually responsible for these campaigns. An examination of these characters shows their importance in history. With several major crises in front us, and deep polarization in this election year, we should discuss the importance of using one right now. 

The Advertising Council was created by a former Sears Roebuck executive and head of the War Production Board in the FDR Administration, Donald Nelson. Its purpose was to use tools of mass communication to mobilize the public, as the nation did with weapons manufacturing, to win World War II.

Pop culture characters created by the Ad Council are sometimes mistaken for pure propaganda, as in the case of one of the most popular icons from the era, Rosie the Riveter. But in fact, Rosie was created by the Ad Council in partnership with the J. Walter Thompson Agency to introduce two million women into the workforce as part of the government's war effort.

The most famous of these Rosie ads was an illustration from J. Howard Miller with the immortal tagline,"We Can Do It," the campaign challenged millennia of patriarchal standards with a call-to-arms for women to join the battle and take on jobs previously thought of as for men only.

By today's standards, the idea is antiquated. It was another thirty years before women as the family breadwinner became commonplace, and the battle against discrimination and for pay-equity remains. Yet, Rosie stands as an excellent exemplar for changing minds, of men and women alike, in advance of the common good. The "Rosie" campaign was only the first of many that would change public perceptions in a way that went beyond politics. Who couldn't agree with the spirit of "we can do it"? 

The longest running campaign in Ad Council history is Smokey the Bear, launched at a time when nine out of ten forest fires were accidental. The science was clear: educate the public in order to reduce the number of accidental fires.

While wildfires are a growing challenge in the age of the climate crisis, according to the Ad Council, "the average number of acres lost annually to wildfire has decreased from 22 million in 1944 to an average of 6.7 million today." Now, it is also true that we are living through a very dangerous year, with six of the largest wildfires in US history occurring in 2020. To say that Smokey has his work cut out for him in the era of climate change is an understatement. But, with a 96% recognition and 70% unaided recall, Smokey is the most successful public-service brand-characters in history.

Smokey is effective because he made the issue personal in the tag line "Only YOU can prevent forest fires." He didn't scold the viewer. Rather, he empowered the viewer to be part of the solution. In the case of COVID-19, this could be an effective positioning. The average person can stop the spread by wearing a mask, practicing social-distancing and regular hand-washing. It's up to each of us.

Now, what can we learn from these campaigns as we face a new public health crisis? The evidence is plain and simple: wearing masks will lower the probability of transmission and aid in stopping the spread of the virus. Yet, people are still unclear about this, and politicians are failing to mandate their usage for fear of impinging on people's freedoms. Unlike seatbelts and forest fires, it is not "illegal" to walk around unmasked, but COVID-19 cases in the US continue to climb. There was a time in this country when driving with a seatbelt was seen as a hindrance, as unnecessary, and as an infringement of freedom. It took a combination of laws and public education to get seatbelt use to become standard practice. 

Independently, organizations, brands and companies have adopted masked content and characters to take a stance and spread awareness. Masks have popped up on profile icons.  Even local statues are being outfitted with masks. Evidence already shows that people are seeking out this content to understand and cope with the crisis. On Holler, our mask-related content has already been shared 1.3 million times in messaging and in financial transactions on Venmo. These were created as part of #AdTechCares.

It's time for a brand character to get out there and educate the public. Or maybe it will take all of them. What Smokey, Rosey, McGruff and Woodsy have all taught us is that human nature is willing to change – that our neighbors, peers, and people on the other side of the aisle can be inspired by a character with a unifying goal. One that shows us that the slowing the spread of COVID-19 is up to us – and it starts with wearing a mask.

Pat Giles has led the creative advertising assignments for a who's who of character-driven brands, including Green Giant, Pillsbury, Lucky Charms, Trix, Cookie Crisp, Cocoa Puffs, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cheerios, Honey Stars, Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Boo-Berry, McGruff, My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, Squinkies, MARVEL/Playskool and is currently Head of Studio for Holler.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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