Sciencewomen

Polar bears and penguins

It is becoming an annual tradition to post my open letter to the Coca-Cola Corporation. Maybe one of these year’s Coke will listen.

Dear Coca-Cola Company,

While I have been known to enjoy your products, and never those of your competitor, I am saddened by the misinformation you are spreading in your current advertising campaign. I am referring to the television spot in which you show a family of polar bears who espy a partying penguins and slide down the hill to join the merriment. It’s a very cute advert, but is totally factually wrong. And it contributes to the misconceptions I see my students exhibit. For this reason, I am asking you to correct your advertisement and make amends by providing some educational material about polar bears.

First off, what’s wrong? It’s very simple really. Polar bears only live in the Arctic (the northern Hemisphere), while penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere, principally the Antarctic. Thus, the chances of a wild polar bear happening on a penguin are zero. Maybe you are saying that everyone already knows that, why does it matter if we take a little creative license with our art? Because, sadly, not everyone knows this. I had a student who suggested in a paper that the native peoples of Antarctica would do well to make clothing out of polar bear skins.

If you don’t believe me, ask others. Here’s a quote from Polar Bears International:

One final misconception is that polar bears live at both poles. The belief is common among school children, who grow up seeing illustrations of penguins and polar bears together. Polar bears, of course, live only in the circumpolar North. They never encounter penguins, which do not live in the same regions as polar bears.

Polar bears are a potentially endangered species, with an estimated population of 22,000 to 25,000 worldwide, about 60% of which live in Canada. Most sport hunting is now banned by international treaty, but polar bears face increasing threat from shrinking Arctic sea ice as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Polar bears also have high levels of PCBs and other pollutants in their bodies as a result of the distillation of atmospheric pollutants from all over the world. These pollutants may be the cause of higher juvenile mortality rates and suppressed immune system functions.

One of my earliest memories is of a trip to Churchill, Manitoba when I was four. We saw polar bears along the shore of Hudson Bay, and I slid down a slide shaped like a polar bear. I especially remember a post card of a polar bear looking in the window of our hotel. The next time I saw a polar bear in the wild was at age 23 from a plane window on the ice south of Ellesmere Island. These are memories I will always cherish. But most people will never see a polar bear in the wild, which is why they need the images that they see on TV to be truthful. And that’s where Coca Cola Company has a responsibility to their customers.

By choosing to use the polar bear as your corporate mascot, you also chose to tie your company’s fortunes to that species. Endangerment or extinction of your mascot would be bad PR. Instead, create some good public relations and media for your company. Start with the simple: Polar bears live at the North Pole, while penguins live in the south. Then tackle the more complex: Educate the public about the threats facing polar bears. Adjust your corporate operations (manufacturing, marketing, etc.) to reduce Coca Cola’s impact on the Arctic and on polar bears. Lead by example, and future generations of children will know the magic of the bears.

Comments

  1. #1 NoAstronomer
    December 18, 2007

    Maybe the polar bears were on an eco-cruise when their ship sank and they got stranded?

  2. #2 LM
    December 18, 2007

    You know, this drives me nuts too. I looked up the commercial on You Tube to see what people were saying about it… there were several people who commented on the factual inaccuracies, but the majority of the commenters said things like, “Oh, it’s all in good fun. Who cares?”

    ARGH. I hate that attitude. Do you ever get responses to your letters? I wonder how many other people wrote to them, as well.

  3. #3 DrJ
    December 18, 2007

    Hey I’m with your student. I’ve often asked myself why all those native Antarcticans don’t dress themselves more appropriately. As to where exactly they get all those yellow feathers for the boas they’re normally prancing around in, well, I guess that’s going to remain one of life’s little mysteries for me.

  4. #4 Andrea Grant
    December 18, 2007

    Having wintered over in the antarctic, I can confirm that questions about polar bears eating penguins is one of the most popular misconceptions adults in the general public have. It gets a bit tiresome.

  5. #5 ES
    December 18, 2007

    Why can’t people get information right? I’ve always wondered where commercials get their information or whether they just figure what’s in their commercial is right.

  6. #6 Wayfarer scientista
    December 18, 2007

    AMEN! I can’t tell you how many times I hear this and it seems that EVERY movie or tv blip that has one in it inevitably has the other! It drives me nuts!!! I do believe that they have a little responsbility in at least not totally mis-educating the public (ooo – better stop now or will start ranting as this is one of my pet peeves…). I’ll add my signature to that letter!

  7. #7 Anon
    December 18, 2007

    Have you considered contacting the good people at Polar Beverages, Inc? They have used polar bears as their mascots long before Coca-Cola did, and may have a vested interest in looking better than the big kid on the block.

    http://www.polarbev.com/

    I think they butted heads a few years ago with the Coke people over the Polar Bear issue. I can’t find it, but my poor memory recalls their concluding that (paraphrased) “If Coke wants to advertise Polar Beverages, who are we to tell them not to?”

  8. #8 Twice
    December 18, 2007

    This also drives me nuts. I also especially like those x-mas light displays with penguins frolicking around the “North Pole” signs and the igloos. I’ve considered buying a set and fashioning a correction sign, or doing some kind of display with penguins one one side of an ocean and polar bears and the “north pole” signs on the other.

  9. #9 Academic Vixen
    December 19, 2007

    I gotta go the other way here – I think they are cute and penguins come from the cold and polar bears come from the cold and if they arn’t the same cold…eh. On the other hand…what about all the Christmas images everywhere of snowy scenes and sledding etc half the world has Christmas in the summer. I live in Miami and we have our red and green Christmas short and tshirt outfits. When do we get representation! :)

  10. #10 Field Notes
    December 19, 2007

    After seeing the commercial the most charitable perspective I can take on it is that the coming together of polar bears and penguins symbolizes the peace and goodwill we humans ought to be sharing with other people around the world…

    I am with you that these images promote a huge misunderstanding that is viral. The Coke Co. could be doing a far better job of being responsible.

    They lost my business when I finally kicked the habit a year ago. I’ve been feeling much better since ditching my Diet Coke habit.