Coca-Cola starts $4M campaign for its iconic polar bears

coke can
The new can. (Coca-Cola photo)

Coca-Cola has long had a tradition of featuring polar bears in its holiday advertising.

Now it's time to pay back.

The drink's familiar red cans are taking on a new look: Arctic white, with the image of a polar bear and two of her young.

With the change, the company is hoping to spark a fund-raising campaign that will add $4 million to a World Wildlife Fund effort to give the animals, which some scientists predict may be the first major species to go extinct because of climate change, a hedge against warming temperatures and melting ice.

I mentioned this to a friend the other night, and she snorted in derision. "What do they think they can do about melting ice?" she demanded. "What good will $4 million do?"

In other words, a mere drop in the can?

Not so, says the WWF's Katherine Neebe, who leads non-profit organization's partnership with Coca-Cola.

The WWF is working on "Last Ice Area" -- which might sound romantic if not for the tragedy of the situation. Actually it might be a matrix of areas in Greenland and Canada, where scientists expect the ice to last the longest.

The area would be about twice the size of Texas, in total, and would protect the habitat not only for the bears, but also for the native Inuit people. The WWF is also funding research on the biology of the bears and their needs and is promoting sustainable hunting practices. (Yes, the Inuit hunt polar bears as part of a cultural tradition, but that's not the major threat to the polar bear, scientists say.)

Researchers are "thinking through all of these massive changes the area is experiencing ... and trying to figure out how to sustainably manage this area as it faces additional issues - like shipping, oil and gas development, and fishing," Neebe said.  All will become bigger threats as the melting ice opens shipping lanes and makes the area more accessible. So far, the rate of ice melt has been about 11 percent per decade, Neebe said.

"We still need to apply a lot of science," Neebe said. "There’s so much unprecedented change."

Neebe estimated the project will cost about $10 million, given that the organization isn't anticipating having to buy any land. So $4 million is a nice chunk.

Coca-Cola is donating $2 million for starters. It is also offering to match the first $1 million in donations from Coca-Cola drinkers and others, raising the total to $4 million.

The cans started arriving on store shelves yesterday, and the plan is for them to remain through  February,  2012.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola and WWF have launched an "Arctic Home" website -- definitely worth a visit -- with more information.

And they're partnering with MacGillivray Freeman Films, which has produced a new IMAX film, "To the Arctic 3D." The film is due out in 2012, but sneak preview footage will be aired on television commercials and on the website before that.