Antarctica is often cut right off the bottom of world maps, relegated to the white space around the margins. Despite this cartographical discrimination, the continent manages to turn up in a strange array of places: from a horror movie setting, to the inspiration for a cognac, to the backdrop of a climate debate, Antarctica refuses to stay put down South. Look a little closer and Antarctica – and stories about the place – has a much wider reach than one might initially imagine.
One place where that reach is particularly visible is in advertisements. My PhD project looks at representations of Antarctica in advertising media, asking what sorts of stories have been told about the place, and what sorts of connotations the continent has carried. The adverts in my collection are for a whole range of products, from watches to dog food, jackets to insurance. They cover a time period of over 100 years, acting as a showcase for both advertising conventions and ways of thinking about Antarctica. Below are a selection of my favourites…
Antarctic Whale Bone
While these days we tend to think of Antarctica as a wilderness, valuable for its pristine nature and scientific opportunities, this has not always been the case. In the late 1800s when this advert was published, the region was much better known for the marine resources – namely seals and whales. Seals were processed for furs and skins, while whale oil was used to make everything from margarine to street lamp fuel. Baleen, also known as “whale bone,” was useful in the manufacture of corsets. Here, Antarctica is also adopted as a brand name to set this baleen apart from others. Sure, the product may have come from the same whales, but the branding of the south offered an additional mystique.
Byrd Larro Feed
While it features a mammal at its heart, this advertisement speaks to another era of Antarctic exploration. Yes, there was a stage in between where heroes were all the rage (in fact, 1899 – 1920 is known as “The Heroic Era” of Antarctic Exploration), but when the USA’s Admiral Byrd burst onto the southern scene in 1929, he trailed advertising like a superhero wears a cape. Weekly radio shows back home were prefixed by adverts for Grape Nuts cereal, and the publicity stunt of taking three Golden Guernsey cows south in 1933 ensured an ongoing public interest story. When Iceberg the calf entered the world further south than any of his kin, he became a celebrity. A celebrity who was fed on Larro feed, what’s more.
If these images of rugged up figures towing sledges and leaning into the blizzard remind you of photographs from 100 years ago, that’s because they are supposed to. Remember that “Heroic Era” term? That’s exactly what this advertising campaign tries to evoke. Ideas of masculinity, nationalism and man vs nature collide in these images, associating the “Spirit of a Nation” tipple with the ideas in the process. Here, the figures are in fact injured war veterans – male and female, and of different ethnicities, but all from the UK – following in the footsteps of Scott and Shackleton as they walk to the South Pole. Modern heroes walking in the footsteps of “Heroic Era” heroes… so much to analyse!
Sure, we spend most of our time hunched over our desks doing that analysing, but whoever said that Humanities scholars don’t get to go on field trips has never experienced a Methven ski season. This photo of a paint advert was snapped on the chairlift at Mt Hutt during a morning trip (building in time for relaxation during your PhD is important!). It also turned the downtime into a data-gathering mission – having seen one version of the advertisement, I absolutely needed to collect photographs of every other permutation that adorned any other chairlifts. Cue a full day of riding the lifts, camera in hand, and making good friends with the lifties as I tried out each chair in turn. Oh, and data relating to the theme of Extremity. (For more actual analysis of the advert, see this blog post).
Dora the Explorer
I’ll give you a moment to recover from watching that clip before I spring the pop quiz – what was wrong with that picture? If you pick the sastrugi ridden icescape you may well be onto something… for full points, identify the penguin and its native habitat (hint: it’s not Antarctica), and explain the implications of introducing a monkey to Antarctica post Madrid Protocol (post 1995, alien species are strictly forbidden). From my point of view, there’s plenty that is right with the advert too. It opens up discussions about territory, nationality, nationalism, masculinity. What are implications of depicting a latina girl as beating British men to the South Pole? Well, let me write you a chapter…
The adverts that feature Antarctica are diverse, eclectic, and, on the whole, a pleasure to explore. It’s not all snow and blue skies all the time though. Analysing each advertisement takes time and care, with aspects such as layout, colour, text use, content, imagery and themes evoked all taken into account. Still, there are not too many students who can say that sipping a replica whisky, listening to a Metallica concert, and skiing in the Southern Alps of New Zealand all contribute to their research project as a whole. It turns out that Antarctica really is everywhere – you just have to know what you’re looking for and open your eyes.