By Erica M. Dingman
The word “Arctic” evokes a feeling—it sparks images of pristine, wide-open spaces blanketed by the purity of ice and snow. Its unfettered beauty serves as a source of human wonderment, filling our dreams with thoughts of wanderlust and solitude removed from the drudgery of everyday life. For most, a voyage to the Arctic will remain little more than an evocative dream nestled neatly in the subconscious, ready for recall at the sight of an image of northern lights or a polar bear grandly roaming the snow-clad tundra.
In recent years, however, increased media attention and provocative demonstrations have added a flavor to the High North not previously seen. For example, although environmental scientists have been tracking the receding ice pack for over 30 years, it is more likely to hit the mainstream news now than even a decade ago, raising public awareness to a region largely forgotten after the Cold War.
For my part, I’ve been tracking Arctic issues since 2007, more recently with the help of a Google alert. Though far from complete, information flows into my inbox on a daily basis. As I recollect, it’s been roughly six years since I began this “Arctic” alert, and it’s been fascinating and at times perplexing to see what type of content gets wrapped into this daily synopsis of Arctic news.
Back then, most alerts resulted in articles on conveniently named products such as the Arctic Cat snowmobile and ATV. There was only a smattering of articles on the Arctic region itself. To my gratification, the balance of content has now tipped in favor of issues directly related to the High North, attesting to the growing recognition of the Arctic as a region of special interest.
Yet, despite this increased media attention on relevant Arctic issues, I’ve noticed that the usage of the word “Arctic” has also increased as a convenient tool for branding products far removed from issues concerning the High North. Eliciting images of purity and light and ideas of untamed beauty and wilderness, “Brand Arctic” has been appropriated for a diverse range of merchandise from water to lighting fixtures to comics.
At first I thought little of the re-conceptualization of “Arctic” as a descriptive outside the traditional milieu. When the Arctic Monkeys, a British-based rock band, entered the music scene in 2002, they were early adopters of the Internet and the “Arctic” descriptive. The mismatched wording of the band’s name was a catchy means of grabbing public attention when anonymity was the norm in the abyss of web-based information and entertainment. Needless to say, neither the band members nor their music are relevant to Arctic issues. But their branding choice piqued the curiosity of fans for whom the Arctic was a nebulous and exotic idea.
Branding is an invaluable tool for a successful marketing strategy, designed to win the hearts and minds of potential customers. In the highly competitive market of bottled water, for example, some purveyors have recognized the value of including the prefix “Arctic” to connect with the emotions and imagination of the target audience. The word communicates purity of product and suggests that the consumer will be rewarded with a thirst-quenching, cold beverage. Indeed, the Arctic is popularly understood as a cold and pristine environment.
Two companies have clearly identified the opportunity to advance sales for an otherwise undifferentiated product. As Peter H. Gleick’s book Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water points out, Arctic Spring bottled water comes from Florida, while Arctic Falls bottled water comes from New Jersey.
Similarly, product design is no exception to delivering the expectation of desire. British lighting designers Joanna Bibby and Harriet Maxwell McDonald invented the Arctic Pear Chandelier, a creation symbolic of the glistening northern lights. I admit that I'm rather fond of the 3 Tier Arctic Pear. As the name suggests, it delivers on the expectation of a luminous glow.
Until this point, my mind was able to justify the appropriation of the word “Arctic” for reasons of product placement. But I took exception to the name appropriation of a newly released video game called “Arctic Alive.” The character, salaciously clad in a skintight bodysuit, paces through a maze of rooms, trapped like an animal vulnerable to an unknown villain lurking around the corner. In one depiction of the game in play a red-eyed, hooded male avatar emerges from darkness and snaps his victim’s neck. This vicious action reoccurs as the gamer controlling the female character is unable to avoid the red-eyed villain. Pushing the limits of acceptability, I took exception to this appropriation. This ill-conceived video game appeals to the consumer’s baser instincts, reinforcing female victimization and remaining detached from any real Arctic context.
These products I’ve mentioned do not even take into consideration the appropriation of other words related to the High North—information technology company Inuit India, a restaurant named Arctic Circle: Shakes, Burgers and More, and real estate developer Greenland Forest City Partners.
Corporations have clearly appropriated the word “Arctic,” as well as other High North names, for the purpose of product placement, and those who have an affiliation with the region can do little to rectify the situation. Yet, imagine if the Arctic region were considered a corporate entity with the applicable registered trademark under U.S. federal law. Such an entity in possession of that trademark would have exclusive rights to that trademark, enabling the entity to pursue litigation against all potential offenders. Undoubtedly, such an entity would not hesitate to re-appropriate the term “Arctic,” which would be seen as a means of blurring the consumer's perception of the trademark under U.S. law.
Imaginative marketing is conditionally forgivable—most consumers are at least mildly aware that branding is part of the seller-consumer relationship. But to blindly accept the misappropriation of the word “Arctic” without notice is simply a rejection of ethics.
As Canadian musician and wordsmith Glenn Gould said in his laudable recording “The Idea of North,” “I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians, I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained of necessity an outsider. And the north has remained for me a convenient place to read about, spin tall tales about, and in the end avoid.”
Appropriation is no small matter. And while it is unlikely that the Arctic region, and regional entities like Inuit or Greenland, will gain or even seek the status of a corporate entity, adopting names and elements of the High North for commercial purposes is a means of stripping identity. Tread lightly.
Erica Dingman is a senior research fellow at World Policy Institute and directs the Arctic in Context initiative.
[Photo courtesy of Maropak]