Database mines oil sands advertising

Posted on Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Man in office with bookcase and advertisements posted on the wall in background.

Patrick McCurdy, principal investigator of MediaToil, a two-year research project.

By Mike Foster

From photos of oil industry executives standing in front of pristine forests, to apocalyptic visions of environmental devastation, the MediaToil database is a gold mine of competing representations of Canada’s oil sands.

The two-year research project, led by University of Ottawa communications professor Patrick McCurdy, gathered photos and documents related to the oil sands produced by industry, governments, First Nations and civil society groups.

McCurdy says much can be learned from studying the battle for public perception waged through advertising and publicity campaigns.

“I think sometimes these ads are seen as a proxy for discourse and debate,” McCurdy said, “but instead, they reinforce these divides. It makes you pick red team or blue team. You’re picking sides; there’s not a discussion.”

McCurdy says one interesting feature of the database is that it shows how industry advertising has evolved. For years, industry produced images of smiling corporate executives and employees in the great outdoors, or of shiny refineries, or of land that had been restored following oil extraction. Then, in the mid-2000s, environmental campaigns gained traction with images and graphics that highlighted the environmental impact of the oil sands industry. Today, the new industry trend is lifestyle advertising, which focuses on indoor comforts.

“The tension that people are offered is either the stark, apocalyptic imagery, like Mordor and the tar sands, versus the comforting pictures of domestic life,” McCurdy said. “(Oil companies) consciously shifted the conversation to focus on the ubiquity of energy in our lives.”

Screen shot of several images and graphics about oil sands.

A small sample of the hundreds of photos in the MediaToil database that illustrate Canada’s oil sands debate.

MediaToil includes images from the late 1960s to 2015, when the project stopped collecting data. Even so, McCurdy hopes to add materials related to the Energy East Pipeline, as well as comparable documents from campaigns in the United States.

To build an online database that could be searched by both researchers and the public, McCurdy reached out to computer science professor Herna Viktor at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She found master’s student Sahil Saroop to take up the challenge of converting McCurdy’s vision into code. The two-year project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), also involved communications students Laura Nichol, Stephanie Seiler and Adam Thomlison.

Viktor says the MediaToil project offered a great opportunity to apply computer science research.

“This project involved database creation, information retrieval, data exploration and data mining,” Viktor said. “The first challenge was to create a database that was not only visually appealing, but also efficient, in terms of user access. We also implemented a novel content-based image retrieval method in order to accurately group related images.”

MediaToil.ca recently won the Human Dimensions Open Data Challenge, a national competition organized by SSHRC, Compute Canada, the Ontario Centres of Excellence and ThinkData Works.

The prize comes with $8,000 in research funds, which McCurdy plans to use to expand the database.

Another offshoot of the MediaToil project is the creation of a 70-page comic book by Ad Astra Comix. The comic book, due out in January 2017, will tell the story of two art school graduates with opposing views of the oil sands: Mary works for an advertising firm that has been hired by an energy company; Callum is a debt-laden environmentalist who, to make ends meet, agrees to work with Mary on an oil sands advertising shoot.

“The idea is to take this MediaToil research and communicate it in a different format to a broader audience that may not read an academic journal,” McCurdy said.

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