The truth behind Paddy Power’s polar bear World Cup stunt

It turns out that spray painting a St George’s Cross on an 800-pound polar bear isn’t that straight-forward. Who’d have thought it?

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Over the years, we’ve got up to some things at Paddy Power which raise eyebrows around the dinner table at the in-laws. We’ve been chased by cops around the Vatican (2005), faked some deforestation of the Amazon (2014), and somehow helped Nicklas Bendtner score twice against Portugal, fuelled by PP Lucky Pants under his shorts (2012). Good times.

Now when it comes to this World Cup, there’s already plenty of people talking about Russian hooligans, Harry Kane’s captaincy and who England’s next scapegoat will be.

But how many football fans are discussing, say, the Russian Arctic’s endangered polar bears that roam across the longest Arctic coastline in the world, and some of the most remote? Scientists don’t know enough about the bears across this vast and inhospitable area that is not only experiencing record sea ice loss, but is also targeted for increased industrial activities and shipping.

“If you want to point at a single black hole in our knowledge of polar bears, it is the Russian Arctic.”

Steven Amstrup, Polar Bears International

So, while England fans are famous for bringing St George’s Cross flags everywhere, Pitch Marketing Group came up with the idea that we could get in on the action, show our support for Southgate’s boys (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’.

Video footage of the stunt leaked on the internet on Friday, June 1, and some large print advertising emerged in the UK’s Metro newspaper on Tuesday, June 5, which pissed plenty of people off.

But how did Paddy Power actually manage to spray a polar bear?

That idea of came up more than a year ago. Since then, we’ve been on a mission. From trying to rescue a bear in South America, to approaching one in the UK and trying to spray their beloved, among other options.

We considered creating a life-size animatronic bear, but came to realise that not only would this be costly, it’d probably look a bit naff. Besides, nothing’s better than the real thing.

So, we looked further afield, and found the love of our lives in Canada. That is poutine (it’s just a posh word for chips and gravy, folks) and a privately-owned, majestic polar bear called Agee. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Cut the BS and tell me how you got the flag of English pride – and Brexit’s Batman symbol – on the side of a polar bear. So here goes.

First off, we had to clear all of this with Mark Dumas, Agee’s owner (above). This was a bit like falling in love for the first time, and finding out your girlfriend’s dad is Tyson Fury.

Paul Mallon, who was heading up the craziness as Head of Major Brand Activations for PP, said: “When we first spoke to Mark Dumas, owner of Agee, and told him we wanted to paint his beloved polar bear the silence was palpable. He warned us sternly, ‘If you want to rile up a 250kg apex predator that’s a pretty good way to go about it’.

“It was at that point we realised a brush, a tin of red paint and a dash of bravery wasn’t going to cut it. Avoiding death and cruelty was the question, and technology was the obvious answer.”

We also spoke to the techies at visual effects company Framestore (the folks behind the magic bits in Blade Runner 2049 and Fantastic Beasts, amongst other Hollywood gems) to see if they could help us out in bringing our George’s cross to life.

Of course they could – but they’d need 18 clips or trackers on Agee’s fur to make that happen. Mark Dumas’ response to that? “Do you fancy pinching an Alsatian with a hair-clip 18 times and seeing what happens? Thought not. You’ll be lucky to get five on her.”

Still, we headed out to the wilds of British Columbia in the hopes of getting as many clips on the side of a polar bear as we could. Joining our crew was Arthur, our dashing Russian-speaking actor you’ll see in the video, two camera guys and a whole lot of apprehension.

On the ground, somewhere in Canada

Our first destination after landing in Vancouver was Mark and Dawn’s ranch. Here, we got to meet our leading lady for the first time.

Our man on the ground said: “Arriving at the Beyond Bears ranch to meet Agee was mind-blowing. I never thought in my life I’d be coming face-to-face with a polar bear. It was only when we caught a glimpse of her for the first time that we realised the scale of the project we’d taken on.”

Here, we also met Agee’s extended family. Her vet and handlers gave us our first safety briefing, as well as managing our expectations for the big shoot day. We didn’t want to piss off a polar bear.

We headed to Kamloops, near where our shoot was due to take place, and had various final planning sessions, spray-painting fluffy white rugs and practicing Russian phrases with our actor. Heading deep into the Canadian countryside – and watching the temperature gauge fall to minus 12 degrees –  it was time for action and a thorough briefing on how to stay safe around Agee.

A few nervy hours of shooting followed, in the company of PBI and American Humane, who look after animal rights on film productions. We were keen to make sure Agee was happy and comfortable, that we had enough shots to take home and that all our interviews with experts were recorded. You see, it’s unlikely you’ll get a second chance at something like this.

Unlike working with footballers or jockeys, Agee nailed her part pretty quickly and after a manic few days in North America it was back to the UK and editing suite at Framestore.

Framestore made footprints and electric poles disappear, added a spray-painting hand, and performed endless hours of technical wizardry that left us with a video we’re sure blows your mind – the loose idea being that Paddy Power had hired this Russian rogue to spray a cross on the side of a bear. Vlady Power!

And, while everyone was still scratching their heads, wondering was it real or fake and just how we’d managed it (including plenty of people in the office) we revealed that we’re not so bad after all.

Polar Bears International

Here we have it. The real reason behind our madness. Yes, we wanted to get your attention and create some carnage. But, we’re also donating a five-figure sum to Polar Bears International, to fund a ground-breaking research project into Russian polar bears – that big blank spot in terms of knowledge.

The support will make a huge difference, working with two projects in the Barents and the Chukchi Seas, two areas which have suffered from massive sea ice loss in recent years. Our support will help scientists have a better understanding how bears in those areas are faring with the change in climate.

Did we get your attention? Good. That’s exactly what we wanted. Enjoy the World Cup, and head over to Polar Bears International to donate, and read more about polar bears in Russia.

What do you think?