Animal Symbols, Corporate Values, and the Meanings of Nature

Apple's Snow LeopardA post by Andy Revkin on the Dot Earth blog yesterday asked whether companies that use animals as logos and as symbols for their products should be expected to contribute to related conservation efforts. The example at hand is Apple with their new Mac operating system, “Snow Leopard.”

As Revkin puts it,

Should companies that cash in on the names, images and auras of great, endangered cats and other species help conserve them?

Not surprisingly, some companies already do. One example that comes to mind is the Canadian investment firm AGF. As they explain on their web site, they have been supporting World Wildlife Fund Canada since the 1980s.

AGF first began partnering with WWF-Canada in the 1980s to raise awareness about the Sumatran tiger – our corporate symbol.

A strong, agile and decisive species, the Sumatran tiger embodies qualities that are important to us as an investment management company. Over the years, we have worked with WWF-Canada to save the highly endangered Sumatran tiger and to educate the public about the WWF-Canada’s efforts to protect all endangered species – including a number of tiger species that are close to becoming extinct.

Many of their ads in the 1990s featured the WWF logo and a brief message of support (clicking on this detail from the ad will show you the full ad).


And this ad, from 1990, specifically describes how the two organizations have partnered.
AGF Act Now While Supplies Last

So, sure, it’s nice if companies do provide this type of support, but my guess is that those that do are a small minority. The practice of using animals as corporate symbols is so widespread and claims by these companies (in their advertising anyway) of species-specific support are rare as far as I have seen. As many of the people commenting on Revkin’s post suggest, these companies probably should pony up and the public should encourage them to do so. In fact, one Dot Earth reader posted a comment that linked to a new group that is advocating this, Save Your Logo. And there is at least one group starting to campaign to get Apple to cough up some dough. Is it “exploitation” if they don’t, as Jaime, the reader whose comment prompted Revkin to write the post, suggests? People will disagree on that, but what is interesting is why it needs to be asked.

The symbolic use of animals is as old as human culture. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “animals are good to think,” and ever since our earliest cave art (such as Lascaux), we have been using animal symbols to help us make sense of the world. As for this kind of corporate logo/identity/product animal symbolism, it’s simply the attempt to transfer the implied (assumed?) exemplary qualities of the animal to the company or product.

The irony is that in many cases, the real condition of the species is nowhere near as healthy as is implied by these symbolic uses. Apple makes snow leopards seem ubiquitous, powerful, well-fed, and really beautiful. The IUCN lists the snow leopard as an endangered species which means it is “considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.”

Such commercial representations of animals tend to portray an idealized and fit natural world that starkly contrasts with reality in the same way that fashion magazines create unrealistic and idealized images of women, except more so.

And this brings me to the question of meaning, rather than just money. As I have suggested, companies use animals symbolically because those animals are meaningful to us while being flexible signifiers. People respond to images of animals and because of the general public’s ignorance of their biological, behavioral, and ecological specificity, animals can be made to play a variety of roles in commercial narratives. In this case we are talking about positively-coded uses of the animals, but there are also many ads that place animals in the role of the bad guy.

One thing to take from this is that people like animals and value the qualities that they are thought to exemplify. This is a good sign, I think, for it suggests we can still recover a sense of identification with other animals. However, it is not enough to simply say that more money needs to go into conservation efforts. The problem that underlies species extinction is much deeper than that. It is, I suggest, partly a problem of meaning. Animals don’t mean enough to us and what they do mean is often limited. Not only do we not really understand them very well, we also don’t value them in a way that would be conducive to protecting them. We tend to see them as resources–both symbolic and material–to be exploited for our benefit.

When our culture and our companies can see beyond that narrow meaning to give the natural world the respect and consideration it deserves, perhaps we’ll no longer have these kinds of (mis)representations and we won’t have to ask whether or not they are a form of exploitation; we’ll know they once were.

About Mark Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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