Real Life

Bear and biscuits

When Cookie Bear was big.

Cookie Bear
The original Cookie Bear got his start on The Andy Williams Show in the 60s.

When you think about bears who have made a difference, a few names spring to mind: Rupert, Pooh, Yogi, Smokey and, closer to home, Cookie.

While other bears had magical adventures, dispensed philosophy, livened up pic-er-nics and prevented forest fires, ours flogged biscuits, first for Hudsons and more recently for the Griffins label, where he can be found promoting Cookie Bear’s Snap ’n’ Play biscuits with such themes as Popstar Party and Space Mission.

As Cookie’s “father”, advertising legend Don Donovan, once explained in less-than-magical prose: “In the early 1970s Carlton-Carruthers du Chateau, the advertising agency of which I was a proprietor, conceived the idea of Cookie Bear for Cadbury Schweppes Hudson.

“There was a mendicant bear character in The Andy Williams Show that triggered the idea,” he recalled. That would be right. Williams’ popular TV series featured a man in a bear suit playing a character called Cookie Bear, who was always scrounging for cookies.

There was more to the plan than having a cuddly bear and a bit of fun for kids, even if the accompanying Cookie Bear Club, with a New Zealand Woman’s Weekly page, quickly generated an enthusiastic following.

Donovan believed the real payoff from the character would come when the first generation of children who had grown up with the lovable bear became parents themselves. “The brands you grow up with are an important part of life’s experience and are likely to be passed on to the next generation with the usual transmitted tribal folklore,” wrote Donovan, who died in May last year.

It is those now grown-up children who presumably keep alive the thriving Trade Me market in Cookie Bear products. Starting bid on a 1970s Cookie Bear school lunch box is $80.

At the height of Cookie Bear’s popularity, his club had 180,000 members and four women were employed to answer his mail – and in that success lay the seeds of his decline. Company bean-counters who did not share Donovan’s vision for his ursine mascot pointed to the rising cost of postage for sending out annual birthday greetings to the club’s members and started applying pressure for the bear’s activities to be curtailed. Ironically, new technology with automatically generated birthday emails might have ensured Cookie’s club flourished for a few more years.

He had risen to such dominance from humble beginnings. As Donovan recalled, it was fortunate his first TV commercials pre-dated the introduction of colour television, because the bear suit used was borrowed and green.

Nor was he bereft of talent; the voice that intoned his catchphrase, “Dum-de-doo”, with such orotund sonority belonged to one of the country’s most prominent actors, David Weatherly: “I was in the suit as well. A furrier in Christchurch made it to fit me.”

Things only changed, says Weatherly, now 76, because a new ad agency decided Cookie Bear was too big. “They cut him down by six inches... said I was scaring the kids.”

He continued to voice the bear and says he has no regrets about being remembered for the role. “I’m an active Freemason, and everywhere I go they still say ‘Dum-de-doo’ and ‘Come on, Cookie Bear.’”

Photos by: Getty Images