Once again, the American voters have gotten it wrong. Once again, they failed to elect Smokey Bear to the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in this year’s voting, which closed at the end of September. The iconic bear is just that—ICONIC. He defines the word. His picture could be in the dictionary beside the word to illustrate what an icon is.
This advertising legend set the standard for all who have followed. There are few other such characters with Smokey’s longevity, and fewer still that combine his longevity with his level of international fame and recognition, and none who have benefited society more. As I saw last week at the North Carolina State Fair, children (of all ages) still get excited about seeing him and proudly and happily wear stickers with his message. He is not pushing a product we don’t need, like some other bears now on the Walk; he’s promoting an idea that saves lives. Created in 1944 to promote the message that forest fires are destructive and that humans need to be vigilant about preventing them, by 1964 he had become so famous that the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own zip code to help handle his volume of fan mail. His famous phrase “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” became so widely recognized that he only had to say the first two words and people knew what he was talking about. In one poster, he simply prompted readers to “Think” and they knew what to think.
Advertising Week executive director Matt Scheckner unwittingly told us the fundamental flaw with this so-called Walk of Fame: “Going back to 2004 when we first started, what we have tried to do is mix classic and contemporary; and by design, we work to freshen it up every year.” I suspect Mr. Scheckner realizes his walk isn’t what it really should be. I wonder if Advertising Week is ashamed of the venture. I couldn’t find a website dedicated to the walk, and it doesn’t even have a listing in Wikipedia. Rather surprising for an organization dedicated to the art of promotion. Moreover, every other walk or hall of fame is for those who have earned a spot because of their contributions to the field over a long period of time. It should not be a popularity contest or what strikes the public’s fancy now. Even the Hollywood Walk of Fame has standards! For theirs, you have to have a minimum of five years’ experience in your field and, unlike Kim Kardashian, you need to actually do something worth commemorating in stone.
Now contrast what’s just happened on Madison Avenue with how they handle things a few hours’ north at Cooperstown. In 1936, when they voted in the first class for the Baseball Hall of Fame, voters elected the five guys who to this day remain the gold standard of baseball: Ruth, Wagner, Cobb, Johnson, and Mathewson. Journalists and knowledgeable fans still measure every player that’s followed against those guys and what they did on the field. They won’t vote in Mike Trout or Bryce Harper next year because they’ve caught our fancy. They measure those rookies against the greatest, like Ruth or DiMaggio, and tell them, “Okay, you had one outstanding year. If you want to be enshrined, do it again for 9 more.” (Players considered for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame have to be retired for 5 years and had to have played for 10 years.) The Advertising Walk of Fame should have standards, too, such as the character has to have a career that’s lasted for a minimum number of years (I suggest 5, half of the requirement for Cooperstown, but enough to prove a character’s contributions and durability while also eliminating flash-in-the-pans) and first appeared a minimum number of years before (I suggest 8) to prevent a character in its fifth year of usage from being elected (Cooperstown requires that a player be retired for 5 calendar years; here, the three additional years provide extra time to assess merit and durability). Smokey is more than eligible on these standards. And given his long association with baseball, and baseball’s with him, perhaps he should be considered by Cooperstown for his contribution to the game.
But back to the flaws in the election process. Some characters in the Advertising Walk of Fame, like the AOL Running Man, weren’t well remembered at the time of their election and don’t resonate at all today. Some are so new, like Mayhem from Allstate Insurance (which first appeared in 2010), that it makes a mockery of the very idea of a walk of fame. And why was a character like Progressive Insurance’s Flo, created in 2008, under consideration last year and then elected this year? Bob Garfield of Advertising Age summed it up nicely after they announced last year’s nominees: “[H]ow do we all know Flo?” Garfield asked. “It’s because she’s on TV every three seconds, and we can’t get out the DVR fast enough to fast-forward past her.” With Smokey, less is more. You don’t have to hear his message every 5 minutes to know what it is. That’s how you know he’s the marketing gold standard.
Smokey changed more than just marketing world—he changed the real world. He shouldn’t have to stoop to campaigning for votes against insurance peddlers and sugar pushers. He should’ve been in the founding class of the Advertising Walk of Fame. In fact, Smokey, you’re in a class by yourself and don’t need to be there. I say, Smokey, just walk away from the Walk of Fame.