EDUCATION & COMMUNICATION
April 2015 | Volume 21, Number 1
BY SAMANTHA SENDA-COOK
What is left of the sun dapples the surface of a lake, as thick, intimidating storm clouds roll in over the shadowed mountains. Silhouetted against the glittering lake surface, a person stands in a small, inflatable boat. Both mountains and clouds dwarf the lone human in the boat, who is caught moving away from the imminent rain. The clouds, the mountains, and the lake remind the viewer that they will not be tamed; the person must accommodate them. Looking at this picture, one word comes to mind: wild. This image, from the Canada Goose catalog (2008), and thousands like it are featured in outdoor retailer catalogs all over the world.
Visual communication powerfully shapes our thinking and the ways with which we interact with the world (DeLuca and Demo 2000). By examining how our conceptions of nature are developed and supported (or undermined) through images, we can better understand the actions we take and the laws we codify about natural areas. Images in outdoor recreation catalogs are widely distributed, are from – for many audience members – a trusted source, and are broadly representative of images in the outdoor recreation industry. Therefore, analyzing them can provide insight into how a conception of “wilderness” is socially constructed by retailers and some of the consequences of such a construction.
I argue that outdoor retailers use images of places and experiences that conform to dominant conceptions of wilderness (e.g., untrammeled, undeveloped), thus reinforcing cultural definitions of wilderness while paradoxically making it seem accessible to users. In this article, I begin by discussing the term wilderness, acknowledging its legal definition but focusing on its cultural understandings. Then, I describe the marketing materials I analyzed and the process I used. Next, I report the results of this analysis, explaining how the themes of places and experiences contribute to the notion of a people-less, yet accessible wilderness. I close by recommending that wilderness advocates assess and utilize dominant communication messages, when possible, to support their preservation efforts.
Wilderness: A Social Construction
Wilderness has been described by some as a social construction (Graber 1995), built and reinforced through cultural communication. This construction can mediate both nature and our experiences in it. Wilderness connotes a place without people. This has consequences in the material world, such as determining what land is preserved (Dustin 2014; Senda-Cook and Endres 2013). As a construction, wilderness functions positively, grounding arguments for land preservation (U.S. Public Law 88-577). Some also criticize it for limiting cultural practices and environmental efforts, especially environmental justice (Cronon 1996; Guha 1998).
As a concept, wilderness has a dualistic quality: it (only) exists independent of people, and yet people who recreate want to experience it (Hay 2002). This dualistic quality can both benefit and constrain the environmental movement, inspiring both preservation and sacrifice (Plumwood 1998). If a piece of land shows few signs of humans, it can be constructed as wilderness and is more likely to be preserved. By contrast, if it has already been “spoiled” by human manipulation and culture, justification may arise for development or resource extraction (DeLuca 2007). Although I recognize legally designated wilderness areas, in this article when I use the term wilderness, I am referring to an idea prevalent in Western thinking. I focus on the construct rather than the legal definition because the construct provides a foundation for legal decisions (Marafiote 2008). Identifying a place as wilderness emphasizes its open, untrammeled nature and becomes a reason to preserve it or to travel to it.
Representations That Resonate
The Outdoor Industry Association (2012) reported that Americans spend $646 billion a year on outdoor recreation gear and trips. Outdoor retailer catalogs – in conjunction with TV commercials, social media, and websites – contribute to these sales and continue to shape our understanding of the world (Martin 2004). I began my study by performing a cursory analysis of 30 catalogs published over a 40-year period (from 1972 to 2014). During this process, I recorded dominant themes and patterns that emerged. After initial coding, I reexamined the catalogs with the coding scheme in mind, attending to details that revealed the nature, function, and construction of wilderness. Further, I selected 6 catalogs as a representative sample of the 30, based on the location of the company’s headquarters and the company’s size. I focused on catalogs from 2006 to 2013, as those publication years comprised most of my examples and provided insight into the larger contemporary, communication context. Narrowing my focus to six catalogs also allowed me to analyze each one in-depth while offering local, national, and international perspectives. The six catalogs included were Kirkham’s (a local outdoor retailer based in Salt Lake City, Utah), REI (a U.S. based outdoor retailer with more than 100 stores across the country), Canada Goose (an international gear manufacturer based in Canada), Icebreaker (an international gear manufacturer based in New Zealand), Patagonia (an international gear manufacturer based in the United States), and Snow Peak (an international gear manufacturer based in Japan).
The visual communication these retailers use make subtle rather than heavy-handed claims about places and experiences and how accessible to users they are. By portraying images of nature, the catalogs construct wilderness through the places depicted and construct accessibility through the experiences represented. These images communicate not only what wilderness is but also that people can and should access it. By referencing wilderness directly through representations of places and indirectly through representations of experiences, outdoor retailers contribute to cultural discourses about what wilderness is and its appropriate use.
The wilderness these images construct serves both positive and negative functions. On the positive side, people may be inspired to preserve natural places (Marafiote 2008). But on the negative side, these images, often people-less, allow us to forget that nature is all around, and that practicing Leave No Trace principles in our everyday lives would improve the environment and our health as well (Dustin 2014). Thus, deconstructing these marketed images of wilderness can provide insight into how the cultural constructions we have about wilderness come into being. This analysis also shows retailers paradoxically that is people-less while making that very same wilderness feel accessible to audience members by depicting unpopulated places and familiar, desirable experiences.
Constructing Wilderness Through Place Representation
Retailers consistently display products in areas that look largely unpopulated and beautiful (see Figure 1), a practice predicated on a cultural understanding of what wild places are. And yet, unlike Figure 1, the wilderness areas depicted consistently include small groups of people and products. In fact, presenting nature as huge and remote, but not without people, was pervasive in the catalogs. Catalogs from all the companies feature photographs of mountains, lakes, swamps, forests, rivers, or canyons with people and/ or products in the photos. Snow Peak’s cover looks much like Figure 1 but depicts a pair of crampons (used for ice climbing) at the top of a mountain in the foreground. The background is full of sky, clouds, and the peaks of other mountains, and the image wraps around to the back cover, expanding the view. Likewise, the cover of the Icebreaker catalog reinforces the idea that wilderness is vast by featuring two models submerged waist-deep in a swamp. In big letters above and around them, the viewer is told, “Look deep into nature and you will see everything clearly” (Icebreaker Limited 2013, p. 1). The photographs and text emphasize the lack of people or the insignificance of people in relation to nature, showing the depth of nature available with these products. The photographs tap into a desire to use outdoor recreation to escape culture, civilization, and other people by depicting wilderness that extends as far as the camera’s eye can see.
Despite the convention of photographing nature without people (Solnit 2001), the catalogs do include them most of the time. This encourages viewers to adopt the subject position of the people in the representations. Including humans and their gear in photographs cultivates a particular view of action as occurring in a remote wilderness and the self as an adventurer. The Kirkham’s catalog exemplifies this strategy; the pictures of people using the products are in isolated areas such as in the mountains or on the beach.
The people in these photographs also function as reference points to demonstrate the largeness of nature. They communicate a perspective about nature and humans’ roles within this context: humans are small compared to the wilderness in which they recreate. For example, Icebreaker offers a two-page spread of the sky at sunset. About an eighth of the page shows the ground and, squatting on it, is a man tending a campfire. The viewer can see a few tiny trees in the far distance, reinforcing both the remoteness and enormity of this landscape. This perspective appeals to both adventurer and environmentalist sensibilities. In the catalogs’ implicit argument, the wilderness place is accessible but only to a few people (who have the gear necessary to venture there).
Although these companies incorporate clean white backdrops for some of their photos, the shots on location are pervasive and create the feeling that the people who work at these companies understand the possible places people will go with their gear (or the places they want to go). Staging photos in naturalistic settings fosters an impression that “the great outdoors” is the place where recreation happens and appeals to a sense of wonder, uncertainty, and challenge that undergirds expectations for desirable experiences (Senda-Cook 2012; Senda-Cook and Endres 2013). These depictions resonate with audience members and organize expectations of what counts as wilderness, what we should do while there, and how accessible to us it should be.
Depicting Experiences That Demonstrate Accessibility
To simultaneously tap cultural assumptions about wilderness being remote and make these areas seem accessible, retailers tell implied, visual narratives about both extraordinary and mundane experiences. Appealing to a sense of the extraordinary, these pictures remind audience members of their own stories of singular moments (e.g., the time we walked alone on the beach and saw a giant sea turtle making its way back the ocean). For example, Icebreaker shows two people traversing a stream in a canyon of tall red rock; they are the only ones visible. Patagonia features a two-page spread of three skiers hiking through a vast snow-covered landscape. No others are visible across what must be hundreds of square miles. Pictures of extraordinary experiences resonate with what many recreationists hope their outdoor activity will be. Showing very few people on a trail or at the top of a mountain may tap into memories recreationists either have or hope to make. Ultimately, all of the mundane activities are more common in recreation, but the extraordinary moments are just as much “how things really are” as the ordinary moments of outdoor recreation.
Rather than showing every product experience as entirely amazing, retailers include images of mundane outdoor experiences such as cooking a meal or setting up camp, thus infusing the products with a common sense about outdoor recreation experiences and reinforcing a sense of accessibility. For example, REI shows a group of five men and women sitting around a fire pit on the beach with coolers, cups, and plates all around them. One of the women has a dog on a leash next to her, and the viewer can see some people playing in the background. Details such as the dog and the dishes make these photographs feel familiar. While not indicative of designated wilderness, the “ordinary campsite setups” nod to the reality of recreation experiences without delving too far into it. This strategy builds on the idea of wilderness – established through place setting, as described earlier – by demonstrating its accessibility with pictures of experiences.
The construction of experiences is designed to align with what recreationists have experienced and with what they could in the future. The tension between mundane and unusual is nowhere more apparent because outdoor recreation forces people to be connected completely to the everyday tasks that make life move along (e.g., fetching the wood to fuel the fire to heat the water to brew the tea). On the other hand, the possibility for seeing something strange and beautiful or discovering the limits of one’s body are much greater. Tapping into these assumptions about the nature of the outdoor recreation experience, outdoor retailers construct wilderness places and experiences that audiences can imagine for themselves. Thus, they appear accessible to the audience.
Recommendations and Conclusion
Wilderness, by design, is a place without people. Outdoor catalogs support that notion of wilderness, but they also intend to make it feel accessible for potential customers by depicting places and experiences that support that interpretation. I argue that this construction is largely positive because it inspires recreation, which history has demonstrated inspires protection of natural areas (DeLuca and Demo 2000; Marafiote 2008). The catalogs reinforce images of nature as beautiful and valuable, albeit remote. But they also challenge a potential mental barrier by portraying them as accessible and within reach. Thus, I recommend that advocates use this depiction of nature but do so cautiously because it can also invite recreationists to seek out people-less places, thus reducing the number of places without people (Senda-Cook and Endres 2013). This construction of wilderness has the potential to impact how people make decisions about where they recreate, what areas to preserve, and who has access to an area; it organizes priorities and expectations.
Although wilderness advocates create powerful marketing messages, those messages exist in the context created by many other competing messages and values. This context, sustained by pervasive messages about wilderness (e.g., catalogs), can support and contradict wilderness preservation messages. Making wilderness seem accessible creates expectations, sometimes unreasonable, but it can also inspire land preservation. Thus, advocates should cautiously take advantage of existing dominant messages about wilderness. To be successful in this context, I recommend a few communication strategies to help wilderness advocates:
- First, conduct a communication assessment. Get to know the character of pervasive messages, including visual communication, about wilderness in the area where preservation is sought. This analysis has illuminated themes found in international, national, and local outdoor recreation catalogs. Similarly, advocates can gather and examine local messages to discover what preconceived notions exist about the area and who contributes and creates those messages and notions. This will help determine if they should use those messages as support for their efforts or try to counter them. Based on this analysis, I recommend building on messages that emphasize accessibility and desirable experiences because these messages resonate with wilderness audiences.
- Second, communicate the big picture. This analysis reveals that outdoor recreation catalogs use dominant images of nature that consist of sprawling, beautiful landscapes. This creates expectations of what counts as nature, which can undermine local preservation efforts. When trying to protect comparatively small tracts of land or land not celebrated for its beauty, it is important to remind potential supporters of the bigger mission and emphasize the scale and context of the group’s actions. Making these connections for potential supporters can align advocacy efforts with dominant expectations about wilderness.
- Third, use available resources strategically. One issue for advocates is that outdoor recreation companies, even small ones such as Kirkham’s, spend a lot of money to produce and distribute high quality, glossy color photographs to entice consumers. This kind of production is not feasible for most nonprofits, but they can take advantage of online tools to generate visual communication that rivals what companies can produce. Another problem is that these catalogs use general (perhaps even generated, i.e., not real) landscapes, and advocates must use images of real places, which might not conform to expectations of vast and people-less wilderness. But the advantage that advocates have is local history. While this analysis shows that untrammeled wilderness landscapes are desirable, it also demonstrates the effectiveness of portraying familiar experiences. By tapping into existing cultural knowledge about places and featuring images of those places, advocates can tell the stories that generate pride and respect for local places.
- Fourth and finally, emphasize accessibility when possible. Catalogs present a simplified world, one in which humans are not a problem. For them, recreation is depoliticized and focused only on having fun. Advocacy organizations present a more complex message, often highlighting how humans can be a problem for natural areas. However, if advocacy groups can show how their efforts will increase people’s value and enjoyment of an area – by making it more accessible or making activities possible – they should do so.
Communication about nature can support or challenge our dominant perceptions of wilderness. In this case, it supports conceptions of wilderness as people-less and paradoxically represents it as accessible for use. In doing so, outdoor retailer catalogs contribute to a cultural context, and wilderness advocates could benefit from attending to these dominant forms of communication to increase the effectiveness of their efforts.
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SAMANTHA SENDA-COOK is an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Department and faculty in Environmental Science at Creighton University; email: SamanthaSenda-Cook@creighton.edu.