Heathrow Airport maps the world, and it still belongs to Britain

I was sitting in the tube recently and browsing through one of those free morning papers that no one really reads when I stumbled on a new Heathrow Airport ad with the legend: “Only Heathrow takes Britain further.” The ad depicted a Eurocentric world map lacking national borders or state names. Not only is Britain placed right at the centre (how else?), but Britain seems to have swallowed the entire world and transformed these countries into its own little provinces: the whole of Africa has become part of South Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Glamorgan; South America is, amongst other things, divided between Cambridgeshire and Essex; West Asia (a.ka.a the Middle East) is annexed by Warwickshire; continental Europe has gone over to Gloucestershire. The entire world had literally transformed to become a British settlement. Kind of like…um, colonialism never ended.

In the throwaway pages of newspaper that a fellow passenger left behind, Heathrow Airport invites Britons to imagine a complex, non-too-happy past as the happy, simple present; here, in the advert’s world, Britain’s colonial hangover is swapped for an imagined past where Britain never lost its Empire to anti-colonial movements, Instead, it further extends its iron grip over non-Brits, including white Europeans (o, beware). A nightmare vision for many, but it’s apparently an acceptable enough view that Heathrow Airport’s marketing people didn’t think twice before plastering it all over London’s public transport system for millions of postcolonial peoples on their daily commutes to consume.

The image above is of the map alone. Here’s the full ad (click on it to enlarge it):

This whole sham was, however, not Heathrow’s first atrocious attempt to map the world and provide us with a possible vision for the future. Two years ago, Heathrow Airport decorated the London Underground with a similar colourful ad campaign claiming, “Only Heathrow brings growth to our doorstep”. The ad depicted Britain surrounded by a world divided into ‘customers’ and ‘opportunity’. The division line was both economic and racial. While first world states—in other words, majority white states—were labelled as customers, while the remaining world—all postcolonial nations—were plastered with a big fat OPPORTUNITY stretching from Africa across to Southeast Asia, and all the way to Central America.

Since the launch of their ad campaign in 2012, little outrage was to be heard or seen about the company’s use of overt neo-colonial expressions to promote itself. The sparse online criticism that emerged didn’t go beyond personal blog posts and Facebook comments, as if the campaign failed to reach the wider public. Heathrow Airport wasn’t impressed at all. Clearly, they thought so little of the voices protesting their campaign that they took their neoliberal and neo-colonial ambitions a step further, as I saw in their newest commercial on the discarded paper.

In this new ad, Heathrow Airport successfully transforms territories labelled as ‘opportunities’ and ‘consumers’ to become full colonial subjects who are available for Brits to access and put to labour at all times. It tells daydreaming Britons, “The World’s emerging markets are growing over 8%”: in other words, grab it while it grows and grab it while you can. Sounds strangely familiar, no? When the first British colonisers left their southern English ports to steal resources, people and land in the so-called ‘New World’, they must have been driven by similar rhetoric: grab it while you can, grab it before the Spanish and Portuguese do. Today, the competition for Britain in Africa is China; but the interpretation, however, remains the very same.

We all know that Britain continues to have a hard time coming to terms with the economic and political losses it endured with the fall of its Empire. Over the decades, the small-island state tried in vain to return to its so-called past glory through different cultural, economical and political means. From the British Council to the DFID to the Commonwealth or the EU, each of these seemingly benign organisations serve as platforms for Britain to advance its interests and influence, as well as in attempting to regain a global status it has long lost but continues to yearn for.

When Heathrow Airport engineers its advertising strategy using a familiar refrain (we can regain our former glory!), it not only amounts to an endorsement of Britain’s colonial past, but also its neoliberal present. It celebrates a hegemonic project which cannot be divorced from globalisation and imperialism and the diverse ills it produces. Mapping the world for commercial reasons mimics neo-colonial power-relations that continue to affect the lives of millions people, including people in places like South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda or Egypt where British business interests and investments run high and often at the expenses of local populations.

With its ad campaign, Heathrow Airport attempts to return Britain to an age of global relevance. The PR team behind this advertisement campaign clearly didn’t include anyone politically or historically astute, and I’d assume no person of colour either. It simply positions itself as the new point of departure for presumably white Britons who will board countless planes, on their way to exploit the same people promised lands of the Global South.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.