Laura Newcomer is currently an intern with National Geographic Magazine. She graduated last December from Penn State University with degrees in English and Geography and, blessedly, little debt. When she’s not writing scathing indictments of modern-day advertising, she’s usually cavorting with centaurs in the farthest corners of the globe (and the near ones, too).
Of course by “B.S.” I mean “Bank Statements.”
Every morning on my
walk to work in downtown Washington, D.C., I pass an advertisement for
Capital One Bank that says, “Easier to find than blue crabs in
Chesapeake Bay”. And each time I wonder, What does that mean?
seems obvious, perhaps, that we’re to assume there are a lot of blue
crabs in the Bay, and that the bank has even more branches than that.
But unless we possess pre-established knowledge about the status of blue
crabs in the Chesapeake, how can we assume this to be true?
The Blue Crab’s Back-Story
Let’s start with a quick introduction to the state of blue crabs in the Bay. Blue crabs are the most valuable commercial fish commodity
in the Bay– it’s estimated that the Chesapeake supplies more than
one-third of the nation’s blue crab catch, to the tune of about $50 million per year — but since the early 1990s the population has been increasingly taxed by harvest pressures, habitat loss, and water pollution.
2002, crab abundance has remained consistently lower than past
averages. In 2008, a winter survey estimated the Bay’s blue crab
population to be 283 million crabs– only about
30% of 1990 population estimates.
it isn’t all doom and gloom for the cobalt crustaceans. In the wake of
2008’s abysmal numbers, officials began a series of management
practices, including limitations on catch size and making some areas of
the Bay off-limits to commercial crabbing. As a result, the estuary’s crab population has doubled in the last two years, reaching its highest level since 1997.
improvements are laudable, to be sure, but their successes should not
distract from the fact that the crab population is still nowhere near
what it used to be–particularly when we consider that in 1997, the
Bay’s blue crab had already taken substantial hits.
The Production of False Geographic Knowledge
it’s not as if blue crabs have been doing so consistently well over the
years that we can take their proliferation as a given. But that’s
exactly the tact this advertisement seems to take. The ad suggests that
the crabs are doing just fine– great, even– and, by implication, that
there’s no reason why we as consumer-citizens should give the
crustaceans a second thought (I readily understand that this was likely
not the ad’s intended message. However, I argue that the ad’s creators
are responsible not only for the explicit but also the implicit
information that they convey, because this implicit information is, in
nearly all cases, constructed no less intentionally than the more overt
In this way, the ad actively produces geographic
knowledge– only this knowledge is largely inaccurate. The ad relies on
its viewers, as residents of the Bay watershed (the entire District of
Columbia lies within the watershed),
to feel an affinity for the Bay (and, by extension, the bank that
associates with it)– but it also capitalizes on the fact that most city
residents are probably not experts on the blue crab and will therefore
take the advertisement at face value. In this way, the advertisement
exploits its viewers’ lack of knowledge and creates a false set of
Therefore, I argue that this
advertisement is, at its core, irresponsible. Because, the way we talk
about things, determines the way we think about them, determines the way
we treat them. If we talk about blue crabs as if they’re effortlessly
proliferating, we will think this true, and we will be less inclined to
take steps toward conserving the crabs (and, by extension, their fellow
Bay species, who are struggling under the same pressures).
reality, the Chesapeake Bay needs our time, attention, and efforts at
preservation– now more than ever. To suggest otherwise is not only
inaccurate, it invalidates a watershed that is fundamentally important
for a huge variety of species, ecosystems, communities, and livelihoods.
(For more information on why the Chesapeake Bay matters, start here).
The Take-Home Messages
So, what are the take-away lessons from this advertisement and this post? There are several:
1. Conduct your own research. Most especially (and perhaps this goes without saying), do not trust the information contained in advertisements; it is designed to sell you something. It is therefore highly subject to manipulation and should not be taken at face value.
2. Consider content and audience when discussing geographic topics (or,
really, any topic). It is irresponsible to assume geographic knowledge
in any context– and, conversely, it is irresponsible to assume the lack
of geographic knowledge and to exploit that ignorance in the hopes of
winning public favor and/or economic gain.
3. Care for the Chesapeake Bay. It’s worth sustaining–As is, of course, the star of this blog post: the blue crab. In fact, the blue crab is one of several keystone species
in the Bay. The Bay is struggling, but it is not beyond saving– and
even busy, remote individuals can have an impact. For a list of easy
ways you can get involved in the preservation of the Bay watershed, go here.
4. Live curious.
Notice how even everyday encounters can lead to a lesson in geography
and increased knowledge of regional issues. Feel free to share your own
observations, either with National Geographic or at my own blog, LightInfinityExpress. Thanks for reading–
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Save the Bay (founded by the CBF)
National Geographic Article, “Why Can’t We Save the Bay?” http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2005/06/chesapeake-bay/horton-text
Chesapeake Bay Program