Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Is the Smokey Bear Ad Campaign Effective?

So I was listening to late night radio the other night when I heard the latest Smokey Bear PSA for the umpteenth time. For some reason the tagline phrase at the end of the commercial, “9 out of 10 wildfires are started by humans”, stood out for me this time. We’ve all heard that statistic a million times, but have you ever considered that this is basically the same stat that’s been cited since the launch of the Smokey Bear campaign?

In 1944 the Smokey Bear campaign was launched with the mission of creating and maintaining public awareness of wild fires. The campaign's original catch phrase, "Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires", was proclaimed on the very first campaign poster (seen on the right). According to the Smokey Bear website, “Fire prevention was a real concern since 9 out of 10 wildfires were human caused during the period 1946 to 1950.”

However, that same statistic continues to be cited today in current Smokey Bear commercials, as well as on the NPS Fire and Aviation Management website, the Insurance Information Institute website, and various national forest websites. According to a graph published by EcoWest, using data from the National Interagency Fire Center, the percent of human-caused wildfires has remained fairly constant between the years 2001 and 2012 (red line):

So the question that came to mind while lying in bed that night was how is it, or why haven’t we seen a significant decrease in the number of human-caused wildfires since the Smokey Bear campaign was launched more than 70 years ago? No doubt the campaign has been highly successful in raising awareness of the issue over the years. According to the Ad Council (which runs the Smokey Bear campaign), “96 percent of U.S. adults recognize him, and 70 percent are able to recall his message without prompting.” That's an incredible statistic – one that every marketer in the world wishes they could claim! But why haven’t we seen an improvement in the number of human-caused wildfires over the last 70 years?

In defense of the Ad Council, they also state on their website that “Most importantly, the average number of acres lost annually to wildfire has decreased from 22 million in 1944 to an average of 6.7 million today.“ A quick glance at annual wildfire data published by the National Interagency Fire Center would seem to confirm this claim. However, at the bottom of that report, it notes that annual wildland fire statistics
“is provided through Situation Reports, which have been in use for several decades. Prior to 1983, sources of these figures are not known, or cannot be confirmed, and were not derived from the current situation reporting process. As a result the figures above prior to 1983 shouldn’t be compared to later data.”
Interestingly, the number of fires reported before 1983 is far greater than the years that follow, though the number of acres burned is comparatively constant (the data only goes back to 1960). From my point of view, the claim from the Ad Council appears to be an “apples to oranges” comparison, and therefore isn’t valid. Moreover, it appears the Ad Council is comparing one year – 1944 – to the most recent 12-year average, which isn’t a statistically valid way of comparing the two time periods. As you can see in the chart below (published by the Insurance Information Institute), the total number of acres burned each year fluctuates widely (graph shows number of acres in millions from 1980 to 2014):

It’s very possible that 1944 was an outlier year. An average from that time period, with valid data using the same collection methods and from same sources as used today would be the only correct way to measure this claim. Which brings me back to my original question: why haven’t we seen an improvement in the number of human-caused wildfires over the last 70 years?

Is it possible that our collective conservationist ethic hasn’t improved, or is less now than in years past? It would seem unlikely, but I don’t have any data to support or refute this assertion.

Is it a generational phenomenon? In other words, is it a lesson, or an awareness issue, that each generation has to learn as they come of age? A review of the statistics on the ages of all the human-caused wildfires over the last 70 years would prove (or disprove) that theory. Unfortunately I don’t have access to those statistics, but they would be interesting to see, and would be the only logical reason why we haven’t seen an improvement in this problem over the last several decades. Indeed, it does appear that the Ad Council tries to target younger people, especially when you consider the campaign tactics that have been used over the years. However, can you really say that the campaign has been successful when the needle hasn’t moved in 70 years?

What are your thoughts? Is there another reason for the problem that I'm overlooking? Is there a more effective way of dealing with the issue? Is the Ad Council wasting our federal tax dollars on a problem it hasn’t fixed?


No comments: