Paddy Power: why we decided to stoke outrage with a graffitied polar bear

Paddy Power Betfair's head of major brand activations tells the story behind this week's controversial stunt

Morons. Dickheads. Assholes.

Just some of the more polite terms fired at Paddy Power on Tuesday morning when the Metro published a wraparound ad featuring a polar bear with St George’s Cross sprayed on her side.

Idiots.

Utter cocks. DIE! HOPE YOU GET EATEN BY A BEAR!

We were even called an English betting company by one disgruntled animal lover. Ouch.

Was it real? Well, yes. And no.

Firstly, it was a real bear – filmed in the relative safety of a valley in Kamloops, British Columbia back in February. Her name is Agee, and she’s 800 pounds of apex predator awesomeness (and owned privately by a gentleman called Mark Dumas who provides animals for movie productions).

The idea of spraying a polar bear came from London’s Soho-based Pitch Marketing agency more than one year ago based on something like the following insight: Russia and Putin don’t care much for climate change. There’s a $30tn (£22.4tn) fight for oil in the Russian Arctic and, as a result, polar bear habitats are under serious threat there (where it’s estimated up to 50% of the world’s polar bears live).

"If you want to point at a single black hole in our knowledge of polar bears, it is the Russian Arctic," says Steven Amstrup, of Polar Bears International.

Add to the insight that England fans are famous for bringing St George’s Cross flags everywhere. So Paddy thought we’d show our support for England (and stick two fingers up to Putin) by putting the cross where it’s never been – on the host nation’s most iconic animal in a stunt headlined ‘England Til I Dye’.

To make this work we discussed trying to adopt a bear from South America (difficult to manage during everyday office hours), chatting to a zoo about spraying one of their beloved (voted down), and even building an animatronic version (we’re scared of robots).

So we found Agee in Canada, and then teamed up with not-for-profit Polar Bears International. Over several months we ironed out a stunt for a good cause. Balls of steel, heart of gold, if you will.

Yes, Paddy Power has faked it before (with the 2014 Amazon stunt) so we were determined to go one better and use a real bear. We did actually want to paint her but were warned off stressing the animal, and the fact that it wouldn’t wash off for quite a while – scarring her with supporting England unnecessarily for a long period of time, drawing giggles from her mates.

On set in Canada, we were joined by Polar Bears International to ensure our mischief ran smoothly and safely, along with American Humane who monitor the welfare of animals in film productions, along with Agee’s long-serving vet and family. We’ve had more difficult shoots with footballers, to be honest. She was a real pro – spending hours rolling around in the snow, or appearing ‘tranquilised’, while sniffing for salmon chunks we’d dropped for her.

So, by all means, accuse us of bad puns, being offensive, or being morally bankrupt. We don’t mind offending Gant-wearing, snooty agency types.

But we bloody love polar bears and let’s face it: digital marketing space in London is a complete rip-off. For a decent return-on-investment, buying up space on some wildlife is the brave new marketing frontier.

Come on, England (until the semi-finals anyway).

Paul Mallon is head of major brand activations at Paddy Power Betfair

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