Lecture notes by Rebecca Lucas

One entry into scrutinizing our own past philosophical traditions is through present day familiar cultural narratives – because they are sometimes the legacy of philosophical foundations.

Cultural narratives operate at all the various levels of societal frameworks. We’re going to start by thinking about the kinds of representations of nature we find in the stories circulating in mainstream everyday life. Marketing and blockbuster movies provide a good indicator of mainstream views, and the general positioning of nature operating in our culture.

We all know that modern Western culture is a commodity culture – a consumer culture, so let’s start with some ads. It sounds a bit tragic, but in some ways advertising is the culmination of an entire tradition of thought – advertising is so influential because it targets deep-rooted ideas and codes we’ve culturally inherited and are programmed to respond to.

For example, we respond so strongly to ideas of ‘Nature’, that it provides marketers with lots of powerful imagery. It’s a common way to sell a product. If a product’s associated with nature it might convey messages of being ‘natural’ or, in other words, it’s a norm or mainstream – it’s the right choice for most people, or it might be trying to capture a sense of ‘goodness’ and healthiness, or it might conjure feelings of freedom and purity. There are lots of car ads that use panoramic scenes (Land Rover does it a lot), or just using the colour green, or animals has an influence.


But what sort of reality of nature are we engaging with here? It’s a reality whereby somehow it’s natural to see an awesome desert terrain and very big cars as belonging together. Or a wild animal a good fit for a telecommunications network (OPTUS). And the manufacturing processes are hidden in this kind of narrative. It wouldn’t capture the right mood to fill that desert expanse with a car factory, because that would reduce the objective, which is to sell product. An idea of nature is packed into the product. You’d be familiar with the criticism of the natural world reduced to a resource for human use. Here nature is used not just a physical resource but as a conceptual resource which is exploited with the aim to sell more, to buy more – but what would be really helpful environmentally, what would not exploit nature, would be to buy less.

I’m sure you can think of loads of ads that represent nature. I want us to spend a moment critically analysing one television commercial, for a low-carb beer: Foster’s Pure Blonde – it only goes for 1 minute. You’ve probably seen it. While we watch it, look out for how nature is represented, but also how women, truck drivers, and ideal humans, are represented. It’s funny because it plays into extreme clichés and stereotypes. Also look out for how the making of the beer is shown as a tranquil natural process, from the moment the hops fall from the tree.

FOSTERS PURE BLONDE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ml3ybCxxMRk&NR=1

There are a two things going on in this ad. One, it shows a swag of problematic representations. But two, most of us find it funny, we don’t get offended. Why don’t we get offended by its prejudice against truck drivers as sweaty perving slobs, or by an ideal race of people that may as well be based in Nazi ideology? We probably don’t because the ad is very self-aware – it takes a dig at how other products might in all seriousness try to associate with concepts of purity or perfection through unreal imagery. But, we also should remember that just because the Pure Blonde ad uses stereotypes to be funny doesn’t make these actual stereotypes less problematic. And, the ad doesn’t break them down, or move beyond them, it just uses them.

Through parodying one way nature is represented in cultural narratives, the ad helps us identify a strong cultural view of nature. Romanticised Nature, and romanticised human relationship with nature, is a common western cultural narrative. There’s also another opposite way for representing nature: nature as hostile threat – keep it out – eradicate it – the dirt, the germs, the bugs, the uncomfortable air temperature. But we’re going to think about the Romantic representation.

What images of nature do we get from the ad? It’s a utopia – a picturesque ultra-lush landscape, playful baby animals like lion cubs, skipping lambs, Bambi at the end. Beer is a gentle natural phenomenon: hops falls from the tree into a pristine waterfall, pure white doves doing something with a net – natural filtering, puffer fish blow bubbles into the beer, ‘Pure Blonde’ people, at one with nature, in skimpy pure white togas, leisurely, or almost in a day-dream state, fill bottles.

It’s all very…untainted, and a bit dull. Until there’s a blast of glam metal music – Cherry pie, a monster truck comes in, there’s the slob truckie who loads up, pervs, trashes everything, burns off. The final slogan is:  “From a Place Much more pure than yours”

Or ours! Often a product is persuasive because it promises a better you – a more beautiful you, a more successful you. What’s interesting in the Pure Blonde ad is that the audience identifies with the truckie, who has a more real presence, and whose existence seems more fun. The extremity of the idealization of nature, which includes the Pure Blondes, makes its purity an obvious delusion.

I think the ad is clever and funny, some people do find it offensive. One of the comments under the upload on Youtube is that it would never be shown in Sweden, because it would be considered right wing extreme and hateful. That’s because this ad reflects back at us, through its representation of Nature, of women, of a perfect race, some of the oppressive assumptions we are socially immersed in. Outside of this ad deeply problematic assumptions that cut across sexism, racism, capitalism, colonialism, domination of nature exist. You can think through those complexities, but what the ad does seriously emphasize, is how cultural narratives regularly reduce particular bodies to a few culturally constructed myths or distortions, which we need to critically navigate. These things participate in constructing the way we see the world and ourselves, the way we relate ourselves with the world.

We’re constantly exposed to such constructions, and any relationship real people might have with say, the real natural world, is filtered through such conceptual reductions. There’s the risk that a healthy conceptual relationship with real nature can be partly displaced, or substituted, or simulated. Real nature gets positioned as the background to social constructions of nature, to cultural stories and descriptions of the world.

Photo credit: Hopetoun Falls by David Iliff, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence