Watching the Clock

I’m now in the third year of my PhD project, so the metaphorical clock is ticking. That’s not what I’m writing about today, though – the ticking in question is quite literal, as is the watching of the clock. This is all about time, Antarctica, and chronomoter advertising.

I still wear a wristwatch, which seems to put me in the minority these days. When you have a smartphone that can tell you the time in 24 hour format, and switch timezones with the swipe of a finger, why would you need a clunky timepiece strapped to your limb? One reason is prestige – a shiny branded watch can speak volumes about the image you’re trying to portray to others. According to the advertisements in popular magazines (including in-flight ones), a watch can signify toughness, fearlessness, masculinity, and stylishness to boot.

Another reason is that you plan to travel to places in the middle of nowhere where a smartphone ceases to be smart. That’s why I’ve got this current watch – the day before embarking on my first ever Antarctic contract I went down to the Warehouse and picked out a hardy-looking Dunlop for $40. I figured I’d have quite a few people asking for the time when out on zodiac cruises or hiking through the snows of the South, and boy was I right! Three years on, that Dunlop has more than proved its worth, as it continues to go and go and go. It’s not the only “polar” timepiece, however – in my work on Antarctica and advertising, watches make frequent appearances:

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Watches have long been an important piece of equipment for polar travellers. Long before Antarctic tourists were asking their guides the hour of the day, clocks were used to help those breaking new ground  find their position. On a featureless plateau such as the inland ice of Antarctica, knowing the time of day was vital in order to ascertain longitudinal geographical position. Historically, a quality timepiece and survival were closely linked.

It’s also been useful for watch manufacturers to send their products into the high latitudes, as that means they can claim their watch is particularly tough and can withstand the most extreme conditions. That’s the case with many of the examples above. They range from a 1913 example of the clock Captain Robert Falcon Scott used on his expedition, through to an August 2016 example that features leopard seals (those “extreme” predators) under the ice. The Croton (1957) proudly boasts that “This is the watch that went to the Antarctic,” while the Burberry (2006) makes a visual link between the continent and the watch face itself, and commemorates the brand’s involvement with the Heroic Era expeditions of 1911 (Burberry supplied fabric to both Scott and Amundsen). All the big names have made similar associations with polar regions at some point – Burberry, Smiths, Croton Nivada, Rolex…

Watch advertisements have a long history of featuring extreme environments (think mountain tops, under the ocean, in the cockpit of a plane, or in desert conditions), and Antarctica fits neatly into this already existing narrative of extremity. Rolex has run several advertising campaigns based on the fact its products have been used in the Antarctic, often focussing on the men who used the product. They draw upon themes of heroism and masculinity that have been associated with Antarctica ever since the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration (1899-1922), adding their product into the modern-day narrative of extreme exploration by picturing explorers such as Alain Hubert (2004, 2013) and Rune Gjeldnes (2006) and Erling Kagge (2000, 1998). The brand taps into existing narratives about Antarctica (Heroism, Extremity), and uses these in order to ascribe certain attributes to their own product (such as the “Explorer” watch).

These watches will be the focus of my project over the next few weeks, as I analyse individual advertisements and put them in context – both in terms of polar history, and contemporary advertising. There are many more examples out there, so if you see one, I’d love to hear about it. For now though, it’s back to the writing desk…


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