by Judith Williamson
These ads show perfectly the two main responses to climate change within capitalist marketing. One could be seen as representing the unconscious, where an image of climate change is at once present, and denied; the other speaks directly to the superego, offering a conscious expiation of an acknowledged guilt. The ads ran in the same issue of a recent colour supplement, and though they tell us very little about climate change, together they tell us a great deal about the cultural climate.
Our society is deeply ambivalent about climate change. The issue hovers constantly within public discourse: in the consistent warnings from scientists and those who take their findings seriously, and in an equally persistent counter force, insisting on business as usual and unable to contemplate any lasting change in our way of life. These are not merely two opposing groups – ‘believers’ and ‘doubters’ – but represent the conflicting impulses in all of us who live, inevitably, within a consumer capitalism which appears headed towards destruction of the biosphere.
The simultaneous presence and denial of knowledge about this process is reflected in an image culture where an iconography of ‘global warming’ is ever visible, but rarely connected with any logic or facts about climate change – and frequently connected with the very items or situations that contribute to it. The imagery that has come to signify ‘global warming’ could be summarised by a polar bear perched on an ice floe, a symbol once associated with Fox’s Glacier Mints, but now indelibly expressive of melting ice caps and, indeed, glaciers. Snow and ice are central to our picture of ‘global warming’ – representing by their constant presence precisely what may become absent. Similarly, the polar bear has become symbolic of its own demise. Its plight provides a visible focus for concern which, while valid in itself, nevertheless functions to deflect attention from the parallel situation of humans today in hotter parts of the world.
This point was made directly and deftly in last year’s widely run Christian Aid ad, which montaged ice floes and parched ground with the slogan, "Climate Change threatens more than just polar bears and ice caps". The ad worked precisely because the iconography of polar bears and ice caps had become so familiar. The obsession with snow and ice, polar regions and glaciers, runs through all levels of contemporary culture: novelists and poets have made trips to the Arctic and Antarctic, and there has been an avalanche of literary works about snow and snowy regions in the last few years. We are fixated, as a culture, on images of cold. Overtly, these suggest what will be lost through climate change, yet also, surely, all this coldness adds up to a simple process of denial. It pictures the opposite of what is going on. ‘Global warming imagery’ shows, in fact, nothing warm, let alone hot, but endless icy landscapes. And these snow- and ice-scapes have become a cultural currency in arenas completely divorced from the issue of climate change, yet still they carry that unconscious and deeply contradictory undertow, suggesting both what is happening and also that it isn’t. Freud pointed out that images share with the unconscious the capacity to represent opposites simultaneously. At the deepest level, the ubiquitous snow imagery represents our culture’s ambivalence – both fear, and denial – about climate change.
This explains why such images can appear in the most contradictory places. A recent ad for the Blackberry smart phone shows a glacier, with snowy peaks beyond, two tiny figures in the foreground and the slogan "Love taking it all in". The endless consumption of consumer goods is a large part of what is, in fact, taking it all away, yet the ad can ride on the fashionable glacier (complete with melted water at its edge). This paradox becomes sharpest in the many ads for cars which have drawn on snowy mountain imagery: an ad for the Land Rover Freelander actually juxtaposed the vehicle with Mount Kilimanjaro – especially resonant as it represents Africa’s own iconic ice cap whose snows are melting notoriously fast.
It is in this context that the Peugeot ad pictured here can be understood. The right diagonal half of the page presents a photograph, realistic and dramatic, of a snowy landscape with pine trees in the distance (signifying ‘Northern’) and a glimpse of sunset. A couple of stumps sticking through the snow throw long shadows, and the furrows within it are dark. The note is elegiac: the pink light just tinges the scene with its dying rays and the falling light makes the trees into silhouettes. Night is falling on this untouched snowscape.
The left diagonal of the page is pure black, with the advertised car positioned within it pointing towards the snow scene. It is as if the car could drive forwards and roll the blackness out across the image of the landscape, left to right, erasing it. The visual grammar of the ad cannot be read any other way. The small print recounts the car’s combined fuel mode and ‘low’ carbon emissions: in other words, it claims to be a step forward for the climate, and the ‘emotion’ of the slogan, "motion & emotion" seems to refer to this issue. Yet how good for the planet can this car really be? Ambivalence, denial, loss and coolness are all mixed up in this ad.
The Hugo Boss ad deploys one of the other great iconic symbols for ecological goodness – the tree. The product (a "fragrance") is literally presented, Edward Lear-like, in a tree, which is supposed to imbue it with virtue. The small print promises that as "a helping hand for the planet" Hugo Boss will plant one tree for every bottle purchased. The ad makes a direct appeal to guilt, while simultaneously banishing it: in another kind of denial, it suggests you can actually help the planet by consuming! This epitomises the corporate and individual notion that planting trees makes up for any damage to the environment, in a sort of perpetual absolution. The tree – important as trees undoubtedly are – has become a symbolic currency for wiping one’s slate clean. So, yet again, the imagery of climate change works not against, but perfectly with, the economic and emotional structures of consumer capitalism.