Category Archives: advertising

Energy “futures”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

Sociologists like to talk about the sociology of expectations, the manufacture of futures. You can’t just say “it’s the future, take it” (or at least you can’t and not just sound like a bit of a tool). But futures are made, not least by imagining what we might expect, and those expectations can be managed. Or, as the sociologists put it, ‘the future of science and technology is actively created in the present through contested claims and counterclaims over its potential’ (UCL has a good overview, if you want to read more).

A nice study of making the future in action can be found in Megan Prelinger’s book ‘Advertising the Space Race: Another Science Fiction’. We’re all quite used to the idea that science fiction may interact with actual science and technology (nice report on this from NESTA or just go have a nostalgia over Jetson’s videophones). What Prelinger’s book does is show how science fictional ideas and images were really reflected in 1950s and 1960s adverts for space technologies. Amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century, Prelinger shows how some of the most fascinating discourses of hope for the future weren’t in the pages of pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. As such, they actually worked to construct this future too.

What has this got to do with energy?

Much of this Dialogue on energy was about offering us imagined futures from which to make decisions about today. Because so much of the energy debate comes down to ideas of economic growth and climate change, it is deeply futuristic; obsessed with forecasts. Technological forecasts. Economic forecasts. Climate forecasts. All uncertain – indeed, we saw several of the Dialogue speakers joke about having forecasted incorrect oil prices – but all powerful too. Just the very idea of what the future could be can provoke a particular response, used as tools to both close down and unlock policy ideas. Forecasts frame futures, they are part of the materials we make tomorrow from, even if they can’t predict or determine what is going to happen, or we act in spite of them rather than with them.

The futuristic aspects of the energy debate were played out quite reflexively at the end of the Dialogue with the concluding discussion ‘mapping scenarios for our energy future’. The panel – Fatih Birol, Steven Chu, Karin Markides, Johan Rockström and Semida Silveira – reflected in a reasonably dramatic way where they might imagine being at some date in the future. Or at least it was more dramatic than the usual abstracted graphs of the business (which we’d all seen many examples of during the day) though less dramatic than traditional science fiction, rooted in their expert ideas of what they feel to be real and likely rather than simply what would make a good story. Day After Tomorrow this wasn’t.

Earlier in the day saw some interesting debate around the role of technology in building the various environmental and economic models. Rajendra Pachauri in particular argued that we were not baring in mind technology enough in terms of forecasting. We need to consider technology prospects and work out how to better fold them into our energy projections. We need to think about disruptive technologies (e.g. that shale gas revolution we’re always being told about). Such arguments have a long history. The Limits to Growth report in the 1970s was criticised at the time by people such as Chris Freeman, arguing that, for all that yes, the Earth only contained so many resources, their particular projections had failed to give enough attention to technology. One might argue, however, that we already work too much influence of technology into our forecasts as we fold in still under-developed technologies such as CCS into our forecasts (Kevin Anderson is interesting on this, even if you don’t agree with him). Or as Greenpeace’s Isadora Wronski tweeted in response to one of the Dialogue’s talks, ‘every year @IEA projections gets closer and closer to ours, but they overestimate the role of nuclear and CCS in the decarbonisation.’ Maybe the IEA are right. Or maybe Greenpeace are. I don’t know. My point is simply that it is contested. And that you may have to expect the unexpected, but you can’t count on it.

Above all, I think we need to think more about how we might involve a larger number people in this sort of imagining. As my colleagues at the STEPS Centre might say, too often it’s narrations of the future built by powerful actors and institutions which become ‘the motorways channeling policy, governance and interventions’ overrunning a host of often valuable and more diverse pathways which stem from and respond to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values.

Because nice as the scenarios session at the end of the Dialogue was, it was a line up of the great and the good giving us stories. It wasn’t an exercise in collaborative story-making. And we need to take more time to do that. Otherwise I doubt the futures we make will be nearly robust or fair enough. And the policy-makers, scientists and engineers need to get better at devoting large chunks of time to talking with a diverse set of people about what they are doing, in a very routine way. Relying on technologies such as CCS or geoengineering into the various forecasts we use for energy policy before they are even built is one thing we might fight about, but doing so without first explaining what these are to the public and inviting them to be part of decisions around them is another.

Advertising the Space Race

Book review of Megan Prelinger’s, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the space race 1957-1962 (New York: Blast Books). A shorter version of this appeared in the August edition of Public Understanding of Science.

Another Science Fiction cover

There’s a lot of loose talk about science fiction; about the great influence fiction has on science or, conversely, a great cultural crash between the two fields. This isn’t to say science and fiction do not influence each other, or that there aren’t tensions between the two; only that there can be more waffle than study on this topic.

There is a growing body empirical work on the topic which attempts a realistic examination of the topic; work which often creatively looks beyond the flashy lights at the front of the cinema to consider the various ways science fiction exists, and various ways it is influenced by and influences science (and vice versa). David Kirby’s (2011) book ‘Lab Coats in Hollywood’ (on scientific consultants for films) is one, and Megan Prelinger’s ‘Another Science Fiction’, which considers her database of 600 1950s and 1960s adverts for space race technologies is another.

Much has been made of the hype and promises of science fiction. Here amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century (e.g. Aviation Week) Prelinger shows us that some of the most fascinating discourses of hope weren’t in pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. It’s a study of a form of science fiction which I suspect fans of the sociology of expectations (e.g. Brown et al, 2000) will enjoy. The book is, in many ways, a story of at least one thread of the social construction of science and technology.

It’s also a chocolate box of a book too; bursting with lush reproductions of these sometimes exuberantly illustrated adverts. In many respects, it is a piece of art and design history as much as it is a history of the rhetorics of science technology. It’s easy to play spot-the-influence of Klee, Mondrian or Kandinsky in places; images that provide a visual treat as much as an intellectual one (and, arguably, add something to the similarly too often loose talk about connections between science and art). The ephemeral as well as semi-technical nature of the material (amassed from the library in San Francisco Prelinger runs with her husband) also makes you feel like you have access to an area of social life at least less accessible than blockbuster movies. They are images that are at once familiar and yet also unfamiliar. It really is another science fiction, one you are unlikely to have quite seen before, even if you will feel quite at home in it. I have a small personal vice in that I occasionally like to take a break from work by spending my lunchbreak with the Science Museum library’s archive of New Scientists, having a good sniff at their particular type of paper mold, and tracking cultural changes in science by looking at the adverts. Reading this book, I got a sense of a similar joy, mediated by Prelinger along with her thoughtful and well-researched commentary.

The advertisement on page 174 of Prelinger’s book sums up her material very neatly. “Want to build a space motel?” a large banner title asks next to image of floating spacemen and tiny cap of curve of Earth in background. A subheading informs: “Thompson Products can help.” The text continues “It’s bound to happen in the not-too-distant future: an American space motel for rockets will be orbiting about the earth! While the U.S. Government may send it aloft, private enterprise will help build it. And right now, Thompson Projects is ready to design and produce important components and assemblies for such a space station of tomorrow. Fantastically difficult? Perhaps… […] If you’re considering the development of an advanced product, let Thompson help get it into production”

This is very much a story of the commercial side of the space race. A story of companies that were engaged not only in making money from the process of dreaming about the future – as with pulp fiction, a big budget sci fi movie, or indeed, much popular science – but a sense that these dreams might be made into tangible, sellable products. As Prelinger notes, many of the adverts were for recruitment. Similarly, this Tompson Products is not advertising actual products as much as a relationship with the company. The text I edited out with boxed parenthesis in that quote above is filled with blub on their company’s history of work in the field. They are running a discourse of hope on reputation. These adverts are a fiction of sorts, but the fiction of advertising, not the more philosophical and entertainment based fiction that mid 20th century space-themed science fiction is known for. They are still playing with ideas of possible futures, but as an advertising fiction, these are ideas of futures where the implication that they might be real is key. Arguably, all science fiction (all fiction) has some key connection to a sense of the real, but this is perhaps a different form of real, a montisable one. Or at least one you are invited to bet on happening.

To end on a pragmatic note, I can’t be the only science communication lecturer to note advertising as a career path for graduates. As one ex-student put it: ‘those semiotics lectures were especially useful’. I bit my tongue rather than suggest I wasn’t sure that was what their tutor had in mind when she asked the class to deconstruct references to scientific authority in advertising. We may not be comfortable with this, but it’s a reality of the communication of science. For all ‘the public understanding of science’ movement’s lofty educational aims, a lot of science communication is about making money (c.f. Fyfe and Lightman, 2007, or simply the next paid-for touring exhibition you visit at your local natural history museum). Advertising is part of what constructs science and technology; in public and within most closed expert communities too. We’d do well to recognise this.


  • Kirby, David (2011) Lab Coats in Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Brown, Nik, Rappert, Brian & Webster, Andrew (eds) (2000) Contested Futures: A Sociology of prospective techno-science (Aldershot: Ashgate).
  • Fyfe, Aileen & Lightman, Bernard (eds) (2007) Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press).

1958 advert for Shell nature studies guides

You know when you pick up an old book and there’s something tucked inside a previous owner was using as a bookmark? And it’s amazing?

This weekend’s find: An advert torn from a 1958 edition of Punch, for the Shell guide to “Life in the Corn”. If you can’t make out the blurb of text, it starts: “In the growing and ripening stages corn and hay are a sanctuary for wild life which man does not invade”. The small print on the right hand side recommends books based on similar posters, and I found a few other examples of the series in the Advertising Archives (put “Shell” into search). It ends with a tagline that might make some gasp: “You can be sure of Shell. The key to the countryside”.

I would have guessed the thing we now call “greenwash” wouldn’t have started to emerge until the growth of the green movement from the mid-1960s onwards (and a Greenpeace USA history describes it as a phenomenon of the 1970s onwards). But I suppose the energy industry has always had a significant impact on the landscape, people will have noticed that, and so companies will have sought to minimise negative reactions. More simply; nature is nice, lots of companies draw on allusions to it in advertising.

Has anyone done a history of adverting the oil industry? That’d be a fascinating project.

EDIT: (via twitter) Shell sponsored nature guides because people drove to see nature. Of course! It’s a mid-20th century rise of the car and suburban life thing. I’m such a city kid that didn’t occur to me (parents didn’t have a car a lot of my childhood, I never learnt to drive). I didn’t find the Wikipedia entry on the Shell guides when I was having a google for this post, but it’s quite clear there. These were edited by John Betjeman and focused on different parts of Britain. However, re-reading the small print on this advert, I’m not sure this series are quite the same thing, even if they may well come from same relationship between nature and the oil industry. The Betjeman Shell guides were rooted in places, like a tour guide, these were themed around nature (flowers, birds, insects, etc).

EDIT2: (again, via twitter) Guardian piece from 2009 on a recent re-issue of a similar book and great online archive.