White Guys Standing on Cliffs

Slide 32
4 min readMay 19, 2020

Attention, marketers: We’re all good on pictures of white dudes standing on the edges of things. It’s time to shoot something else.

Here’s a fun story:
A few years ago before starting Slide 32, I was still working in-house at a Silicon Valley tech company and I was stuck in a brutal all-day “marketing summit.” It was one of those dreaded, exhausting and unfathomably expensive ordeals where every marketing agency that works with a brand is called in to align on a Q4 plan to hit some astronomical revenue goal. Somewhere in the ennui-inducing lull between catered meals, one of the many account managers said,

“You know what this campaign needs? A guy on a cliff.”

That was all he needed to say, and immediately we all had an image like this in our heads:

What better way to communicate “adventure,” “freedom,” “relaxation,” and “youth,” than with an ambiguous white guy draped in expensive outdoor gear standing on the edge of a glacier, cliff or forest?

Who couldn’t relate to an image like this? A true tradition in our industry employed by brands for more than half a century, what a great way to differentiate yourself from the pack.

All jokes aside, from that moment on I couldn’t unsee the “guy on a cliff.” He is everywhere! If this were just a handful of images, I wouldn’t think much of it, but honestly this shot has been captured so many times it’s practically a genre of photography.

It really made me start thinking about who he really represents and what he stands for. For starters, who and what are not in this image? The obvious answers are: women, POCs, the physically handicapped. The less obvious answer, low-income individuals for whom access to the outdoors is a luxury.

Many of the things represented in this image are only available to a small, privileged class of people with discretionary income and resources. Which makes sense as to why so many brands would pick images like this — it infers that by purchasing their product you are buying access to this lifestyle of privilege. And honestly, painting an aspirational picture of our brands and products is just, well, good marketing.

But if you look at the signifiers we are using to portray this lifestyle you could say that we are actually selling access to the idea of “white-male-ness” (go ahead, call me a snowflake). By continuing to primarily use images of white men in these scenarios, we are reinforcing the idea that this race/gender/location combo is the aspirational apex. Thus implying that other people don’t belong at the top of the mountain (pardon the pun).

The other reason brands use images like this is because they work. As you probably know if you are reading this, these days every marketing image we are exposed to is ruthlessly tested and vetted for clicks, time on page and conversion. If you are seeing a guy on a cliff on a homepage, it’s not by chance. At some point it must become our responsibility as both consumers and marketers to demand better representation even if at first it may come at the cost of clicks.

Image from the 1983–84 Patagonia Software catalogue

Of course, for many brands, the guy on a cliff is an authentic representation of their product and customer. Particularly, if we look at some of the founders of the guy on a cliff genre — namely Patagonia. They were actually doing something quite revolutionary, trading in over-produced product photography with imagery of their athletes in the field. As time went on though, this outlier became the cliche.

This isn’t intended to be an indictment of the outdoor industry’s diversity and representation problem. This has been documented by many folks who are more clever and insightful than I am, and admittedly some brands are making great strides to try to include more voices, faces and communities into their world.

It’s merely an observation of a weird trend, and perhaps a grasp for self awareness. It’s not only our job to advocate for representation in our imagery, but also to ask why it isn’t there in the first place. Sadly the case is often because we all click on the guy on the cliff so much, that the industry sees no reason to change it. Maybe it’s time we give them one.

Slide 32 is a marketing agency with a conscience. We believe that the best marketing a brand can do is contribute to their community. We’re here to help you connect your marketing efforts to create a real positive impact. Connect with us here.

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Slide 32

Slide 32 is a marketing agency with a conscience. We help you connect your marketing efforts to your community to create a positive impact. https://www.slide32.