Under the Influence

He's been putting out fires for 75 years — but do you know his name?

"The Mandela Effect" is a term for collective false memory — when a group of people misremembers a fact the same way. A phenomenon this famous bear knows all too well.
An image of Smokey Bear is attached to a sign alerting motorists about current fire danger conditions as part of the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign on Aug. 13, 2016, just outside Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The phenomenon of collective false memory is really quite astounding.

Important dates, famous lines from movies, song lyrics and even traumatic events can be misremembered by millions of people — who all collectively misremember it the very same way.

Memory is a very fallible thing.

In our amazing minds, we are capable of remembering thousands upon thousands of memories. But often, those memories are like old photographs. They start to fade with time. And when there are blurry parts of those memories, our minds sometimes fill in those blanks with either incorrect information or we confuse them with other events. Or you remember an incident — even a traumatic one — and misremember the details.

That condition has been called "The Mandela Effect."

The Mandela Effect has been defined as a collective false memory. The term was coined by writer Fiona Broome when she discovered she shared a particular false memory with many other people — namely that South African human rights activist Nelson Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s.

So why do so many people remember Mandela dying 30 years before he actually did?

Well, it may be a simple case of combining two separate pieces of information — that Mandela spent a long time in prison — and that he died — then piecing them together into a false memory.

The interesting thing about the Mandela Effect is that so many people can misremember something in exactly the same way. Those things can be sayings or movie lines and even famous advertising campaigns.

For example, one of the most enduring public service campaigns was developed back in 1944.

A vintage Smokey Bear poster from 1963. (U.S. Forest Service)

The U.S. Forest Service established a forest fire prevention program. That same year, Walt Disney released Bambi, the animated motion picture. Disney agreed to lend Bambi to the Forest Service to be used in that first fire prevention campaign.

But Bambi was only lent out for one year.

As that year began to wind down, the Forest Service asked the war Advertising Council — later renamed just the advertising council — to come up with a new mascot.

In 1944 that new mascot was unveiled. And for the next 75 years, he became famous for saying one line: "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires."

So, do you remember the mascot's name?

If you said Smokey The Bear, you would be wrong. His actual name — and the name he has had for over 75 years — is Smokey Bear. Not Smokey the Bear.

It is a collective false memory. That incorrect recollection may have been aided by this song, written in 1950, by the same songwriters who penned Frosty the Snowman:

The composers added the word "the" purely to help the rhythm of the song. But chances are you've never heard that novelty song before. And you've probably seen dozens of Smokey Bear commercials over the years. And yet we all experience the collective false memory.

His name is Smokey Bear.

For more stories about The Mandela Effect, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)