Factual or Fiction? Anthropomorphism's influence on the production of Natural History programming

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George Fleming

Factual or Fiction?
influence on the production
of Natural History programming


Anthropomorphism, historically, has been looked down upon in scientific circles due to concerns many in academia have of misrepresenting animal behaviours in their work (Karlsson, F., 2011). While there has been some research to suggest that anthropomorphism could be a useful conservation tool (Chan, A., 2012), I want to examine whether it is appropriate for Natural History programmes to use anthropomorphism as a tool to further their own narrative whilst maintaining a scientific veneer over the genre. Should most Natural history programming be reclassified as entertainment rather than factual? To answer this I will look at the history of the genre, anthropomorphism and its relationship with advertising and the commercial pressures on producers.

Origins of Natural History programming

The use of anthropomorphism in nature programmes is certainly nothing new and it is almost certainly a natural human trait to attribute human behaviours and feelings to non human entities (Nauert, R,. 2010). Whether it be our cars, computers, cats or dogs it almost feels unnatural not to humanize that which we care about ,or find cute (Horowitz, A and Bekoff, C,. 2007). Early examples of this mass market anthropomorphism, and ones with which we are probably all familiar, are classic Disney animated features such as Bambi (1942), Dumbo (1941) and The Jungle Book (1967). What many people may not be aware of is that modern natural history programmes evolved from early wildlife films made by the Disney corporation in order to take advantage of the popularity of these movies (Ganetz, H,. 2004). Films such as White Wilderness (1958) and The African Lion (1955) introduced wildlife documentaries to a large audience under the pretence of education but, through the use of music, editing and voice over, applied a humanised narrative to entirely natural animal behaviours. Given that these films were made by Hollywood it is somewhat understandable that they felt the need to apply a narrative to these films and using anthropomorphism is the simplest way to do this. It is important to understand how these early films came to be as the majority of wildlife programming since has followed the same template. These films could really only be described as entertainment and yet have claimed, and maintained, a mantle of science and education ever since (Bouse, D., 2000). The extensive use of anthropomorphism in these films, which by their very nature attract a young and/or family audience, would tend to foster empathy towards the species in those movies. Few western audiences would deny thinking of Dumbo when they see a baby elephant, for example.

Symbiotic relationship with advertising

Its worth examining the role advertising has played in early wildlife television shows such as Zoo Parade (NBC, 1950). Studies have shown that the attribution of human characteristics to objects and animals has a propensity to illicit an emotional connection towards those subjects and, it follows, to the brands being advertised (Delbaere, M, McQuarrie, E, and Phillips, B,. 2011). The fact that many of these early shows were at least partly funded (some were bought and paid for) by companies selling everything from pet products to banking services demonstrates the power of associating brands with 'family friendly' subjects that are perceived to be educational. Advertisers prefer to associate their brands with wholesome productions which attract large audiences and if those productions also happen to be associated with science or education then they become even more attractive. Anthropomorphism plays a central role in this function as, once the aforementioned emotional connection with the audience has been established, positive feelings towards the brands tend to increase. The symbiotic relationship between advertisers and...
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