This year marks the 65th anniversary of the creation of Smokey Bear, one of the most recognizable animals in the pop culture canon. In honor of this milestone, the Ad Council launcheda new wildfire prevention campaign this week titled “ Get Your Smokey On.” Animal characters have long been entrusted with instructing children—and adults—on everything from what to do in a nuclear attack to road safety. In 2007, Josh Levin compiled a slide show of pedagogical animals throughout history. The original article is reprinted below.
Like most major Hollywood stars, Shrek is a merchandising beast. As the May opening of Shrek the Third approaches, the ogre will shill for McDonald’s Happy Meals and special, green-goo-filled Snickers bars. But the lovable monster is hedging his bets—along with peddling fatty foods, he’s telling children to get off their duffs. In this commercial, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ childhood-obesity-prevention campaign, Shrek and his animated pals implore kids to “get up and play an hour a day.”
The Shrek campaign, which was created by the nonprofit advertising group that hatched Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog, is just the latest example of a kid-friendly character stumping for a good cause. The Little Mermaid tells us to keep the oceans clean, and SpongeBob SquarePants publicizes the virtues of carrots and spinach. Cookie Monster now sings that “a cookie is a sometime food.” The aardvark Arthur promotes library cards, speaks on behalf of asthma sufferers, and even stumps for literacy alongside Laura Bush.
We now take it for granted that fictional characters like Shrek and Arthur and Smokey Bear help teach our children right from wrong. But how did we come to outsource our kids’ educations to creatures with googly eyes?
Click here for a slide-show essay on how animals and comic characters are deployed as pedagogical aids, and what they have to teach us.