Map-Logos and Advertising

In the second edition of Imagined Communities, his pioneering book on nationalism, Benedict Anderson writes about the introduction of modern overhead to-scale maps and their effects on the way people thought (and think) about political units. The chapter on this, “Census, Map, Museum,” includes an illuminating discussion of what maps replaced, and how revolutionary the modern map really was in contexts like nineteenth-century Thailand. Anderson then goes on to explain a further development in mapmaking that affects our thinking:

“The second avatar was the map-as-logo. Its origins were reasonably innocent — the practice of the imperial states of colouring their colonies on maps with an imperial dye. In London’s imperial maps, British colonies were usually pink-red, French purple-blue, Dutch yellow-brown, and so on. Dyed this way, each colony appeared like a detachable piece of a jigsaw puzzle. As this ‘jigsaw’ effect became normal, each ‘piece’ could be wholly detached from its geographic context. In its final form all explanatory glosses could be summarily removed: lines of longitude and latitude, place names, signs for rivers, seas, and mountains, neighbours. Pure sign, no longer compass to the world. In this shape, the map entered an infinitely reproducible series, available for transfer to posters, official seals, letterheads, magazine and textbook covers, tablecloths, and hotel walls. Instantly recognizable, everywhere visible, the logo-map penetrated deep into the popular imagination, forming a powerful emblem for the anticolonial nationalisms being born.”

In my opinion, this is one of Anderson’s most instantly graspable claims. Map-logos are everywhere, and they are often the first thing that leaps to our minds when we think of a political entity, even though we experience them much less immediately than many other potential symbols. For example, if I’m an Iowa corn farmer, I might think of the shape of the state of Iowa when Iowa is suggested (as opposed to, say, corn fields), even though that shape is unlikely to have any direct relevance for anyone who doesn’t spend their time running marathons around its edge. Indeed, somewhere on the main website of almost every U.S. state is that state’s map-logo, meaning the outline of that state (possibly with counties and/or cities marked) surrounded by nothing.

The power map-logos have to shape our mental images of political units is evident in our attitudes towards potential territorial changes, as Anderson shows in the example of Indonesia. There are plenty of examples using America, though. For example, in 1898 the United States annexed both Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Today there are activists pushing for the independence of both units, but in Puerto Rico a minority wants independence while in Hawaii only a tiny fringe does. Furthermore, in a 1998 poll over a quarter of mainland Americans said they wanted Puerto Rico to become independent, whereas I’m sure few of them would even take the idea of Hawaiian independence seriously. Of course, some of this is simply because Hawaii is a state and Puerto Rico isn’t, but I think the shape of the standard map of America, which includes the mainland plus Alaska and Hawaii, has something to do with our conception of what America prototypically is. And the idea of one jigsaw piece from the actual mainland of America gaining independence is even more difficult to imagine.

Just as map-logos can be used to draw borders between political units, they can also be used to strategically redraw or erase those borders. Take, for example, an advertising campaign Ontario recently launched. Below is one of the ads in the series:


I don’t know for sure that this ad campaign is aimed at American investors and companies, but the only one I’ve seen in print appeared in the New Yorker. That ad’s copy doesn’t mention the word “Canada” once; instead it contextualizes Ontario within a multinational grouping (its workforce is “the G7’s most educated”) and a continent (Toronto is “the third largest financial center in North America”), and it even compares Ontario’s tax rate (favorably) with “the U.S. federal/state average.”

Most significantly, though, the ads all come with an outline map of the Americas in which Ontario is colored in red or yellow and no other borders are shown. Compare this to the more normal contextualization of Ontario, within Canada, for example on Ontario’s Wikipedia page. This more than anything sends the message that Ontario is a political unit within the Americas, perhaps on a level with other regions like California or Delaware. Equivalent websites for Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia (1) use similar graphics; those provinces are pictured within a context that includes at least some of America (and sometimes the rest of the world), but Canada’s borders are not shown. The main page of the British Columbia website actually includes two maps, both of North America and nothing else and both with British Columbia marked and nothing else.

Why aren’t these provinces given their normal contextualizations within Canada? Presumably it’s not Canadians who are being urged to invest in them, or at least not only Canadians. If you’re aiming to attract investors from another country, it makes sense to convince them that they are encompassed within the same geography, so to speak.

Compare this to the examples of two Australian provinces with investment-promotion websites: Victoria and Queensland. Here is the banner from Queensland’s site:

According to the explanation above, and assuming Queensland’s English-language investment website is at least partly aimed at the U.S. and/or Canada, it would make sense for the map to include North America. Instead it only extends as far as parts of southern Asia and eastern Africa. Why is this? Perhaps they’re just not thinking along the same lines as the Canadians. Or perhaps they’re trying to attract investors from India, China, and other countries that are pictured on the map. Indeed, this hypothesis seems to be born out to some extent by the location of Queensland’s international offices, which the website says are in their key markets. Out of 10 countries that host international offices, only 4 (the U.K., the U.S., South Korea, and Japan) are outside the map’s area. China, Taiwan, India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates are all included.

For another example of how maps are constructed with their target audience in mind, let’s take a look at Understand Mexico, a site that offers guides to manufacturing and investing in various Mexican states. Here the map presented is a lot closer to being just a map of Mexico. The Mexican states light up and display their names when you mouse over them, while the neighboring non-Mexico areas lie there inert. The area to the north, however, is labeled “United States of America,” while the area to the south is labeled “Central America” rather than Guatemala, Belize, and maybe a corner of Honduras. Which country is Understand Mexico pitching its guides to, I wonder?

A map, of course, is never just an objective geographic record. Maps are abstractions compiled for specific purposes, and the lines, shapes, and colors that are or aren’t included can shape the viewer’s mental organization of the represented piece of the world. I’ve often thought it bodes ill for the future of the United Kingdom that, when asked to sketch out a map of Europe, I (and presumably many others) would automatically draw borders not only between France, Spain, Portugal, and other countries, but also between England, Wales, and Scotland. By that same token, Cornish nationalists have a long way to go.

(1) See graphic at right. Note that although there is a line through this picture at approximately the location of the U.S.-Canada border, this line is barely visible in its context on the Invest British Columbia website.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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