Under the Billboard Sky

When did the realm of adventure and wilderness travel become Madison Avenue's favorite image bank? A traverse across advertising's new frontier.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

On my way home from work one autumn afternoon, I stopped in the Prada Sport boutique in Manhattan’s Soho—a solemn, white-lit, concrete bunker filled with racks of olive, gun-metal grey, and safety orange outfits broadcasting a cacophony of messages: big-beat ravewear, Euro functionality, hard-core survival gear. Milled of Cordura, Gore-Tex, and a host of other expedition-ready fibers, the vests and jackets were replete with buckles, straps, pulleys, zips—all the bells and whistles of a technical parka by Marmot or The North Face.

Yet nothing here was ever meant to see a blizzard or a week below zero. Beneath our highly technical veneer, the clothes seem to wink, in the end it is only fashion. The sleek showroom, the racks of neoprene jackets, the sturdy, telemark-like boots—this isn’t for the real outdoors. What Prada wants the purchaser to understand is not that he might want to scale Mt. Rainier or head into the backcountry or go out of bounds, but rather that he’s eminently prepared for the virtual outdoors. It is all meant to incorporate the wearer, the Prada Sport customer, in the thrilling narrative of a place called Frontierland.

Add up all the positive connotations of the wilderness—the expansive vistas, the sylvan splendors, the pine-scented mountain air, and the pioneers’ noble triumph over all that untamed nature. Subtract the downside—frostbite, starvation, heatstroke, blackflies, mosquitoes, infant mortality, and typhoid epidemics. Now call the remainder Frontierland, with a capital F, not in a nod to Disney but…oh, hell, it is a nod to Disney. Frontierland represents all that is compelling, gratifying, and ultimately America-asserting about the outdoors, without all the messy hardship. Frontierland is the safe and antiseptic outdoors of television commercials, where models wearing colorful parkas and beefy boots drive SUVs to cavort in scenic settings and engage in hot new (to Madison Avenue) sports like rock climbing and snowboarding. This virtual outdoors flourishes in pitchwomen’s fantasies and lensmen’s imaginations, free from disturbing danger but brimming with the edgy frisson of risk-free (at least on Madison Avenue) thrills. It is as far removed from the real frontier as the Chevy Suburban is from a kicking mule.

But don’t for a second get Frontierland, with all its rugged beauty and extreme sports, confused with the other outdoors, which we will call the frontier, or the wilderness, or the desert, or the mountains, or—well, call it anything you want, but remember that this is where bears can maul you and rockslides can crush you and swelled streams can drown you and even your own traveling companions might eat you.

America, as it is defined today, by its mission to sell as many cars, clothes, and sodas as possible, is awash in Frontierland. Take note of the companies that are now associating themselves with Frontierland, firms selling everything from cell phones and long-distance telephone service to chewing gum and bottled water. The visual language of Frontierland has become the lingua franca of advertising, so much so that even marketers pitching products as removed from the outdoors as life insurance are linking themselves with Frontierland’s adventurer-citizens. When did this happen? When did the outdoors as theme park become the dominant American advertising motif of this fleeting fin de siècle, with snowboarding, rappelling, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and BASE-jumping replacing the log ride and those banjo-playing bears?

It wasn’t always so. When America was actually being settled, advertisers weren’t interested in reminding potential consumers of the perils they faced on the real frontier. In the era before rubberized cotton, being in the wilderness meant being wet, always, unless you were bone dry and dehydrated, or maybe holed up in a snowbound cabin for two months with enough cornmeal to last you only one. No, if you were selling a stove, a wagon, patent medicine, anything, you wanted to tout the civilized qualities of the product, its place in the modern homestead, its use in the royal courts of Europe, anything to distance it from slow death on the range. There was adventure aplenty right out the cabin door, but it was a grudging necessity back then, a means to an end. You trapped enough furs to open your own trading post, panned enough gold to return to Boston and buy a bar. Not too many folks were heading outdoors to get away from it all, despite Thoreau’s meditations and Whitman’s exhortations.

And those who were giddily seeking greater isolation and flagellation upon America’s savage hinterland? They tended to be utopians, cultists, cranks, or visionaries along the lines of the Shakers or utopian socialist Robert Owen or Mormon founder Joseph Smith. No advertiser would find in these niche groups the kind of brand leveraging that would move a few hundred thousand wagon wheels. But the real frontier did throw up one iconic hero, who was duly leveraged and branded to move a few million pickup trucks and a billion or so packs of smokes: the Cowboy. As every schoolboy now knows, this stoic range-rider was as much a product of mythmakers as he had ever been a historical fact. He stood, one dust-covered boot in the actual frontier and one in Frontierland, embodying square-jawed manliness, stolid existentialism, and manifest destiny, and for at least a generation he reigned as our most identifiable national hero. From the Marlboro Man (b. 1955) to Gunsmoke (also b. 1955), the Eisenhower era of Pax Americana required his presence as a no-nonsense marketing tool.

But by the late sixties and early seventies, our appetite for simplistic two-dimensional heroes began to seem naive in the face of Vietnam, LSD, and Watergate. Even in Hollywood, ambiguous heroes like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry pushed aside the cowboy, who went out in a blaze of bloody Technicolor glory in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid—though the Marlboro Man lingered on, in an amazingly effective advertising afterlife, long after two of the models who portrayed him died in the early 1990s of lung cancer (the same era that the brand sponsored the Marlboro Adventure Team, a promotion in which “Marlboro Miles” coupons could be redeemed for backpacks and even kayaks).

Once the cowboy passed from the scene, the archetypal outdoorsman of 20 years ago was the type who slogged through the ads in early issues of Outside and its progenitor, Mariah. A shaggy, masculine, post-hippie guy in waffle-soled boots, cut-off jeans, and a Pendleton wool shirt, resolute in his quiet iconoclasm, not giving a damn about how he looked as he turned his back on a soft society. He was venerably counterculture, and while American advertising is one of the most efficient machines in the world at co-opting counterculture trends, the marketers and admen wanted no part of this particular, tree-hugging fringe. Not yet. This outdoors guy was atavistic, a nineteenth-century relic—think the Ted Kaczynski look with gorp instead of gunpowder and a map of Alaska instead of an antitechnology manifesto. For a while, the two companies that worked hardest to associate themselves with the great outdoors were Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, and what they were seeking to hook into was great quantities of breathable oxygen—this being the subconscious fantasy of every potential lung cancer victim.

Between those fringe-jacketed longhairs pounding Rocky Mountain spring water in ads for Coors beer and the emergence of Frontierland, there was a lull. In their cursory glances outdoors, our national myth-spinners—Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Seventh Avenue—saw only the hook-and-bullet crowd. Nothing sexy here. Cat Diesel caps, bulky sweaters—or even worse, Deliverance and squealing Ned Beatty. Wool was for losers in the disco years, when sleekness in the form of Halston and Darth Vader was the aesthetic cue. Advertisers wanted to look forward, and those shaggy beards were screaming the sixties—the 1860s.

So what changed?

Polyester, really, made the outdoors sexy. “It’s a pretty simple equation,” Joe Walkuski, a textile R&D executive for Patagonia Inc., told Outside in 1997. “Comfort in the outdoors is based on oil refinement. It’s not an easy issue.” But it was a trend that Patagonia itself pioneered with its introduction of petroleum-based fleece, in which polyester micro-fibers are stretched, shorn, and treated into a warm, breathable, and decidedly un-petroleum-like fabric. And back in 1969, chemical engineer Robert Gore had stumbled onto the incredible properties of the polytetrafluoroethylene membrane, which could be stretched and bonded to material to form a waterproof, breathable wonder fabric.

Patagonia sold its first fleece jackets in 1985, almost a decade after the first Gore-Tex shells hit stores. And when Madison Avenue finally did another wilderness fly-by, in the late eighties, the shaggy hiker had morphed into a neon-colored high technologist, swaddled in Polartec and polypropylene. His tools were no longer a walking stick and a poncho, but space-age diving watches, composite skis, and titanium mountain bikes. Especially compelling, for advertisers, was the idea that all this gear was actually essential to the lifestyle—it was functional and it exuded the requisite amount of hipness. Its cachet only grew as affluent young Americans, tired of Eurail passes and Florida spring breaks, discovered international trekking and adventure tourism. Already the boom was being documented and celebrated in both this magazine and in Patagonia’s catalogs: glamorous images of attractive, athletic travelers covered in grime and hunkered over their packs in the Karakoram, creating the notion of the Himalayan range as playground. Even better, from a marketing standpoint, this person, it could be implied in a magazine photo of a Your Brand Here—clad outdoorsman, was clearly engaged with life in a way that was meaningful and fulfilling.

This, of course, was because the outdoorsman himself was still heading into the frontier—not Frontierland—for the same life-affirming reasons that John Muir had gone into the Sierra Nevada. More and more people were hiking, camping, skiing, and kayaking in more and more remote locales, and they were buying gear that could stand up to backcountry punishment. But what the marketers saw was that these new adventurers looked simply terrific. And so Madison Avenue tromped off into the wild after them, huffing up the trail in crocodile loafers, taking copious notes.

The new sports were crucial to the nascent Frontierland. Snowboarding, for example, provided countercultural street cred while extolling the basic American myth of rugged individuality. Hence its passing, in record time, from an outlaw sport to an icon of hyperadolescence to an ofÞcially sanctioned Olympic event. “Within ten years,” says Thomas Frank, author of the advertising critique The Conquest of Cool, “snowboarding went from being considered dangerous to being on a postage stamp, which is the definition of orthodoxy.” Frank points out that the harder adventure-sports athletes have tried to resist the commercialization of their sports, the more attractive their sports have become to advertisers. How better to illustrate the sexiness of youth than with sky-surfing or snowboarding, sports that didn’t even exist when boomers fancied themselves snarling threats to the establishment?

To the credit of the outdoors companies, the gear makers didn’t really pander to the mainstream. They didn’t need to. The mainstream rappelled over to the activewear aisle. In the early 1990s, high fashion was stumbling and designers from Donna Karan to Giorgio Armani were stuck in basic black potholes. Enter the austere, relentless functionality of expedition wear. The heavy zips, the pulleys, the straps, the toggles! It was all so divertente. “This stuff was loaded with detail and þair and fashion when traditional fashion was putting itself to sleep,” says David Wolfe, a fashion-industry consultant at the Doneger Group. Thus gear took over fashion. And fashion appropriated gear, as America’s doyennes of high fashion succumbed to the call of the wild. A skier and mountain biker himself, Ralph Lauren began shifting his look from rustic frontier to Frontierland. “I wanted to design clothes for these sports because I love them,” says Lauren of his forays into gear design. “I wanted RLX to be real athletic equipment.”

So Polo begat Polo Sport which begat last spring’s RLX, which is actually more technical than some technical apparel. Prada spun off Prada Sport. This fall, the Gap and Old Navy focused their marketing efforts on zip-up fleece and nylon vests, which appeared 70 feet high on billboards above Times Square. (It doesn’t hurt margins that a fleece jacket is made from approximately a pound of polyester staple fiber, which wholesales for about a buck.) Meanwhile, virtually every performance item has drifted into the mainstream—hip-hop stars wearing The North Face on MTV, everyone wearing Teva sandals everywhere, an army of Phish fans streaming into shows in Patagonia Synchilla Snap-Ts. By the millions, Americans embraced the narrative of the wild and rediscovered the driving myth of the culture as a disaster yarn—only this time in a Polartec jacket, a pair of Timberland boots, and most of all, a Land Cruiser, 4Runner, Range Rover, Cherokee, Expedition, Explorer, or Xterra.

One part technical marvel, one part Conestoga wagon, the sport-utility vehicle is the consummate Frontierland ride. Look at those big tires, those doors, that jaunty spare tire hanging off the rear door. Did I say door? I meant gate, or portal, or whatever you call that hatch I open to load my groceries. Four-wheel drive, high clearance, fat tires, the SUV is perfect for splashing through streams on the way to the trailhead—or for surviving road rage in a Pottery Barn parking lot.

The SUV is the inheritor of that quintessential television commercial locale: the top of a butte. The first of these ads was earlier than you might think—1963—and the car helicoptered up there, piece by piece, was a Chevy Impala convertible. But by the late eighties the SUV had muscled the luxury sedan off that butte, claiming perhaps the single most indelible image of Frontierland—a place somewhere in the desert Southwest where you can drive up a mountainside and end up perched on a redneck spine.

Using focus groups, SUV makers quickly discovered that consumers were responding enthusiastically to this rugged imagery. “We used the frontier as an aspirational image,” says Joe DiMeglia, who supervises the Ford Multi-Purpose Vehicles account at the agency J. Walter Thompson. “We sat behind the glass and asked, ‘What does this say to you?’ And they said, ‘Whatever you want to do, Ford’s got the vehicle.’ Even people who weren’t kayakers or mountain climbers grasped the idea.”

Of course those people, along with hunters and farmers and others who needed trucks for utility and for sport, had bought SUVs all along: Ford Broncos, Jeep Cherokees, International Scouts. And they continued to buy them, piling bikes and skis and kayaks on top of vehicles that they knew wouldn’t bog down in axle-deep mud on a fire road. But pretty soon, everyone had one. You could pick 1991 as the pivotal year, the moment this recreational market went mainstream in an invasion of Range Rovers and Nissan Pathfinders, in victory parades of Gulf War soldiers in humvees who ensured the continuing flow of cheap oil and gas for everyone, in phalanxes of sport utter that had become the armored personnel carriers of choice for soccer moms.

“The SUV became the car for Everyman,” says account planner David Griffith of TBWA/Chiat/Day, whose agency handles Nissan’s new Xterra account. “People didn’t want to buy sports cars—the RX-7, the Supra all went away—but they still wanted something with sporty, athletic connotations. So they bought the SUV. Same as wit clothes: Instead of buying fashion, they bought utility.”

Utility itself became a cultural vehicle. It was no longer enough that your car, stove, watch, freezer, was the best, it also had to be innately, brutally functional. Viking ranges, Sub-Zero freezers, TAG Heuer watches. All meant to show the owner demands the most from his gear. His watch had better be waterproof to 100 leagues and accurate up to 40,000 feet. His stove could emit enough heat to turn an entire calf to smoked meat in 20 eyebrow-searing minutes. And his car—well, who knew when the tarmac between here and the mall might just wash away one day? Because, you know, if that jacket made it up Everest and back down, it will keep you warm should you, in your own glamorous, extreme life, decide to knock the bastard off yourself.

Of course there are levels of authenticity. The climber of K2 buffeted by the brutish elements, the backcountry snowboarder navigating steep and hairy terrain, the groomed-slope skier on an icy Vermont run. And so on, down the line to the guy in a Tommy Hilfiger parka driving a Rav4 munching on a Taco Bell Extreme combo as he muscles down Fifth Avenue on his way to a Knicks game. It’s gone so far that the Nissan Xterra is billing itself as an SUV intended to be used in the outdoors. Wasn’t that what SUVs were for in the first place?

Will it last? Is Frontierland just another trend, or will Madison Avenue always be out to lasso adventure in the service of sales? “There have been about 3,000 generations of human beings, and about 2,999 of them grew up getting all their cues and learning experiences from the outside environment,” says Kalle Lasn,editor of the advertising industry watchdog magazine AdBusters. “But in the last generation something very strange has happened with that relationship.” What happened is the final triumph of the indoors, of the electronic over the actual environment. Frontierland is just another virtual environment, a great place for a fashion shoot. All semiotics, no sweat.

But even in Frontierland there exists some confusion among consumers about the difference between the virtual and actual frontier, and the message itself is shifting. Many of the SUVs purchased today are two-wheel drive, meaning that there is a market for ultraexpensive gear-type equipment that is actually not gear at all. And available now at the Prada Sport boutique in Soho: Prada alpine skis manufactured by Dynastar…

But thank God that somewhere out there, beyond all the mixing of messages and metaphors, the shaggy outdoors guy is still hulking his way up the trail, and the true outdoorswoman is sliding her kayak into a mountain stream. He may be swaddled in high-tech, high-fashion synthetics. And she may have driven there in a zippy compact SUV. But they’re still soaked and muddy and not giving a damn.