The video recording of this APECS conference is online on the APECS Vimeo channel.
Antarctica has been represented in many different ways over the past 100 years: from a place for heroes, to an ultimate wilderness, to a poster child for climate change. This polar environment is not just changing physically, but also in terms of the ways we imagine the place. Using the humanities as a lens to examine Antarctica offers a new perspective, one that unveils the human elements that drive much of our interaction with the southern continent.
The cultural frame through which we view Antarctica is often taken for granted. In fact, it is a frame that helps to shape our values and inform our representations. Most people will never actually go to Antarctica, so their experience is mediated by cultural production such as films, diaries, and advertisements. That is where my project comes in – I’m looking at the social history of Antarctic iconography in commercial contexts.
So, why adverts? The total global advertising revenue is worth over 600 billion US dollars. While commercial interests are often seen as anathema to the Antarctic, imagery from the south has been used to market a wide variety of products. Adverts recycle ideas that are already in common cultural circulation, making them an ideal medium through which to examine representations of Antarctica. Essentially, this is all about the politics of perception: adverts are particularly interesting because they not only mould public discourse, they have also changed the basis of our consumerism society. This study, which is an image-based, narrative-driven project, involves close-reading of a range of print examples, placing them within the context of the time they appeared, and identifying recurrent themes, in order to track the various versions of Antarctica that have appeared in popular culture. These themes act as a mirror of our own values and priorities back home, helping to explain why we have looked south at various points in time.
I often get asked ‘what sorts of adverts use Antarctica?’ – the answer is ‘all sorts.’ Antarctic imagery or stories of explorers in the Antarctic have been used to market everything from dog food to watches, fridges to pianos, laxatives to vehicles, and even insurance. Each of these advertisements draws upon specific tropes about the Antarctic in order to ascribe certain attributes to the product, service, or brand that is being advertised. We’ll talk about some of those themes is a moment, but first – where did it all start?
Antarctica is unique as the first land-based exploration was happening at a time when photography was already available. Camera artists such as Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley travelled south with the explicit aim of documenting the expeditions. Antarctica is therefore the only continent where the first human interactions with the place were recorded, and rapidly distributed to a large reading public back home: provided fuel for the imagination.
Those images also proved a selling point for the newspapers and magazines that ran them within their pages, hence we see a close relationship between explorers and the media right from the turn of the twentieth century. Press baron George Newnes financed Carsten Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross expedition in 1899 – such an arrangement was good for Borchgrevink, as it meant he had access to the ship and the men he needed to undertake his exploration. It was also beneficial to Newnes, as he then had access to exclusive stories and images, with which to attract more readers to his publications. It was in the pages of such media that the first adverts to feature Antarctica soon appeared.
This endorsement of the ‘His Master’s Voice’ record player appeared in Newnes’ Strand magazine in 1913, alongside Robert Falcon Scott’s diaries. This was the first time Scott’s diaries had been published. Note the positioning of the dog, mimicking the logo of the record company, even over 100 years ago these explorers understood the concept of product endorsements, and taking images for sponsors. Commander Evans, attests to the quality of the product, which is enjoyed – as the headline suggests – all over the word. Antarctica, of course, represents that southern point on the compass. These sorts of product endorsements and adverts that call upon Heroic Era imagery continue to occur today, but there are several other tropes that have also emerged.
Extreme Environment: Antarctica has been depicted as a final frontier, or as the ultimate testing ground. This is most obvious when looking at vehicle adverts, or at products that are promoted with the tagline ‘as used in Antarctica.’ As a testing ground for products, Antarctica provides the ultimate testimonial because of its extreme reputation (coldest, windiest, driest, most remote continent). In this case, the VW went down with the Australian Antarctic Program and was used by those living on base for transport for 2 seasons.
Untouched wilderness, on the other hand, frames Antarctica as a place that should remain untouched by cars and exploration. These adverts include Antarctic images that invoke ideas of purity, freshness and pristine conditions – note the language in the ale advert, which uses water from Antarctica, describing it as ‘pure’ as well. In the case of the fridge advert, the icescape stands for purity and freshness (note the tagline ‘forever fresh’). In fact, there have been many fridge adverts that play on the idea of Antarctica as a cold place, and many use it to also push their environmental credentials – the message in this case is ‘buy this product, and protect this landscape.’ This leads to the final example we will examine today, namely Antarctica as a…
Fragile climate indicator. Images of Antarctica, particularly of calving icebergs and melting icecaps, have been used as shorthand for climate change and global environmental issues, and this also comes through in advertising. A clothing advert for Diesel clothing is a case in point, as it refers directly to the warming of the planet, advising people to invest in Diesel clothing and be ready for the day penguins no longer live amongst the ice. The fact that the penguins featured do not live on the ice anyway is irrelevant, as penguins are often used to stand for Antarctica, even if they are not Antarctic species. For the purposes of my study this advert is significant, as it indicates that the concept of climate change has permeated the popular consciousness enough for Antarctica to be used as a shorthand for the issues in cultural production.
The adverts used as examples today have shown how Antarctica has been used to stand for ideas of purity, exploration, wilderness, climate change, and has been used symbolically to sell products and services that have nothing to do with the place itself. Sponsorship of expeditions adds another dimension. There are many more ideas in circulation, and I will be looking at these over the course of my PhD project.
The cultural frame through which we view Antarctica is often taken for granted. In fact, it is a frame that helps to shape our values, inform our representations, and ultimately has a direct impact on the ways we interact with the place. This means that the commodification of the iconography of Antarctica (in other words, how Antarctica has been used in adverts to sell different products) is an area that is ripe for more thorough examination.
Please do send me any adverts you come across that feature Antarctica, penguins, or polar imagery – I am still building my collection and I would welcome any further contributions.