Appropriation (?) of the Month: Bullroarers

By George Nicholas

Commercial advertising is rife with allusions not only to familiar aspects of popular culture, but also the incorporation of more exotic images, ideas, and places associated with other societies, past and present. 

One example of this is the use of images of Upper Paleolithic rock art from Lascaux, France, to sell Sherwin Williams paint. Likewise, the Acropolis in Greece, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and Mayan temples at Tikal have all figured prominently in advertisements for a wide range of products, from tourism packages to tobacco products.

The use of such images is often creative, sometimes provocative. But sometimes it can be truly disturbing, even harmful to members of descendant communities, especially when it touches upon aspects of their identity or religious beliefs. A case in point is an advertisement for an Australian communications company, currently available on the internet but which presumably had previously aired on Australian television:

Set in the Australian outback, it features an Aboriginal man and woman at a waterhole. The man, his chest painted, climbs onto a boulder and twirls a bullroarer, which makes an ethereal sound. As he does so, the cord breaks and the bullroarer flies off, hitting the woman in the back as she kneels before the waterhole, knocking her face down into it. The text then appears “Communication just got easier.” The accident aside, what is troubling about this advertisement is that the bullroarer is a sacred object never to be seen by women or uninitiated males, and body paint is not simply personal adornment but serves to connect the wearer to totemic ancestors or like purpose.

Unlike other advertising that includes some aspect of indigenous lifeways or heritage, this one clearly is an unwelcome, inappropriate, and even harmful appropriation of Indigenous Aboriginal religious practice. 

Photograph: screenshot from YouTube video

Recommended Readings

Brown, Michael. 2003. Who Owns Native Culture? Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Isaac, Gwyneira. 2011. "Whose Idea Was This? Museums, Replicas, and the Reproduction of Knowledge. Current Anthropology 52(2): 211-233.

Johnson, Vivien. 1996. Copyrites: Aboriginal Art in the Age of Reproductive Technologies. Catalogue for a Touring Exhibition. National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association and Macquarie University, Sydney.

Rowan, Yorke, and Uzi Baram. 2004. Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek.

Talay, Lauren. 2004. The Past as Commodity: Archaeological Images in Modern Advertising. Public Archaeology 4:205-216.

The Appropriation (?) of the Month feature, written by IPinCH team members, highlights examples of uses of intellectual property that might be considered appropriations.