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How to Lie With Maps Revisited: The Canadian Perspective

I recently returned to Hamilton after five years of teaching at a Washington DC university, taking a paid partial-sabbatical at the end of my contract. Unfortunately the time off gave me too much opportunity to watch the dreaded television set.  Some recent commercials I saw on Canadian TV reminded me of the course in cartography I took at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s (when we used pen and ink, before they offered “computer cartography”).

How to Lie with Maps, Mark Monmonier

When I was an undergrad Huff’s 1954 classic “How to Lie with Statistics” was required reading in stats classes and the late great Prof.  Bill Dean sometimes pointed out how maps could also be manipulated in cartography class. After my undergrad I took a few GIS courses at Mohawk, Waterloo and at Esri (learning Unix was a pain for the first course) and one of my instructors referred us to Monmonier’s well regarded book – “How to Lie with Maps” (1991).  I think both Huff and Monmonier may have helped me to become over-critical in life, and critiquing commercials on TV has become a family sport in my home.

One of those commercials that is bringing out the Huff and Monmonier in me is Canadian Tire’s new ad campaign – “Tested for Life in Canada”.   You probably have seen one of these ads. The ads feature a large map of Canada that geo-locates their 15,000 “testers”. However it appears that these testers are evenly spatially distributed throughout the country.

I was awestruck how First Nations and the Inuit people of the Yukon, NWT, Nunavik and the most northern regions of Quebec were cutting their lawns with Canadian Tire’s lawnmowers!  Especially in the vast uninhabited regions of our Northlands. Didn’t know Kentucky Blue-Grass (Poa pratensis) could grow in such harsh conditions; must be GMO grass seed. Interestingly that the map makers didn’t feel the need to show testers on Baffin Island, where the capital of Nunavut is located, or any other Arctic Ocean islands.

Canadian Tire Ad

I have also noted several other recent commercials featuring maps of Canada where product users are somewhat evenly distributed across the country. One product ad notes that over 5,000 stores sell their arthritic pain relief product, offering a map with evenly distributed stores across all Canadian provinces, except our territories. The advertising firm forgot there are three territories, forgetting to map and label Nunavut despite identifying the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The commercial was clearly made well after 1999, otherwise it would be in 4 by 3 television format, so they simply forgot we had a new territory!

The advertising firm forgot there are three territories in Canada

Again, the third map is from an ad that allegedly shows the location of stores that sell a product for your automobile. To be fair their web site gives the full street addresses of their dealers even though the map does not reflect their actual coordinates.

Lots of sales around Hudson’s Bay

I suspect there is a simple explanation for these map lies. The advertisers are likely aware of actual population distribution and simply want to give the viewers the impression that their product, users or testers are available, on quick glance, everywhere in Canada. No harm done, but is this ethical?

Maybe these ads violate advertising standards and regulations.  The 1963 Canadian Code of Advertising Standards (Advertising Standards Canada) is the benchmark for acceptable advertising. The Code is intended to promote the professional advertising and details are available on their web site cited below.

The first cornerstone of these standards us “accuracy and clarity” and the code points out that “if the support on which an advertised claim or representation depends is test or survey data, such data must be reasonably competent and reliable”. Canadian Tire’s campaign relies on user tests and surveys. I am sure the test data for their 15k testers is indeed reliable, but why does the geography of these tests loose the requisite accuracy?

Anyway we as geographers and planners have much more serious problems to tackle in our practice and research. So please do not loose any sleep over this debacle. I should think this issue would make for an interesting master thesis or PhD dissertation. Feel free to contact me with your ideas and thoughts.

new sign at my local store with testers that suddenly appeared on Victoria Island and Baffin haha!

My email is chostovsky@brocku.ca

Canadian Code of Advertising Standards web site: http://www.adstandards.com/en/standards/cancodeofadstandards.aspx

3 comments on "How to Lie With Maps Revisited: The Canadian Perspective"

  1. I am afraid that this is an all too common occurrence. All the weather maps on the news drive me crazy as well. The problem is that maps are too easy to make now on the web or desktop software, without the requisite knowledge of what is an effective, accurate thematic map. I think that many colleges & Universities need to teach more map making skills, together with GIS analysis skills. I have been teaching my cartography and geovisualization course online at BCIT taking my part at spreading the knowledge of good cartographic skills.

    1. Charles Hostovsky says:

      Thanks Karl. I agree.

  2. Ed Sportel says:

    We are the “ignorant masses” and little else is cared for save for buy and spend. I feel it all contribute to the dumb down effect that continues all around us. Advertising rarely speaks to intelligence.

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