Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The 15th biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). June 17-21, 2019, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

“Nature, uninterrupted”: National Geographic’s Use of Animals to sell Vacations

Debra Merskin's picture
Merskin, Debra
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“Nature, uninterrupted” is the caption for an advertisement for one of National Geographic Expeditions’ vacation packages. In the ad, a lioness sits at the edge of a dirt road, gazing off page. The reader’s perspective is safely from an ATV. The scene is set for what will no doubt be an excellent adventure. Animals are used to sell and invoke place in many forms of communication. In the case of the Nat Geo ad, it might make sense, given that they offer safari-type vacations, that a big cat is poised in the picture. At the same time, there are many more aspects to place than the animals who live there or, in many cases, used to live there because they are either extinct or their numbers are dwindling at alarming rates. This paper examines the use of charismatic megafauna, defined as species who, “serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action” (Heywood, 1995, p. 491), by vacation advertisers in general and National Geographic in particular, to sell vacations. Charismatic megafauna include animals such as pandas, bald eagles, lions, wolves, tigers, cougars, koala bears, whales, dolphin, gorillas, penguins, elephants, eagles, harp seals, and bears. While typically used by conservation groups as “brands,” these animals are also symbolically employed as “condensation symbols,” which are “words or symbols that “sti[r] vivid impressions involving the listener’s most basic values” (Graber, 1976, p. 289). As such, particularly in environmental literature, animals such as polar bears, for example, stand in for and absorb fears and anxieties about ecological disaster (Merskin, 2018). These beings figure largely in the collective imagination not only based on their size, but also in part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all carnivores share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them” (Engelhard, 2017, p. 6).

Thus, empathetic engagement and curiosity that might bring someone to care about real animals is also symbolically manipulated in travel literature to define destinations and sell trips, regardless of the conservation status of the portrayed animal. This paper is a textual analysis of National Geographic Expeditions trip literature (catalogs). Images and text are examined to ascertain which species are used as stand-ins for place, and whether or not the animal’s conservation is impacted through tourism. Research questions include: (1) which global destinations feature animals as part of the marketing? (2) which species are associated with the destination? and (3) what is the conservation status of the re-presented species? The findings are important not only to the organization conducting the trips, to local populations of humans who interact with the expeditions, but also animals who have no say about use of their image but are nevertheless impacted by human interaction.