Navigating the Unknown Risks Within the Content We Create and Consume
Kate Edwards/Geogrify LLC

Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir

When a cartographer builds a new map, they employ standard processes of selection, generalization, and symbolization while they are ever-cognizant that there are facts, variables and aspects of the representation that remain relatively unknown. This geographic uncertainty is not at all unlike the age-old notion of terra incognita (unknown territory) found on antique maps during the Age of Exploration, visibly noting where geographic knowledge was limited and where much uncertainty existed off the map edges. Certainly, the romance of such a historical connection was one strong appeal for my own study of cartography (besides also an ongoing love affair with J.R.R. Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth). But in today’s world where the physical geography has all been thoroughly mapped, remapped and digitized to incredible detail, the notion of terra incognita becomes less relevant and replaced perhaps by a more appropriate, broader concept of periculum incognita, or rather, unknown risks.

In the modern context of global business, product creation and community interaction across boundaries, the idea of periculum incognita is directly relevant as there certainly exist many unseen challenges and complications to globalization and culturalization practices. Many large-scale business risks have been well-identified and explained ad infinitum – such as economic conditions, local regulatory policies, market research on consumer preferences, and so forth. But the risks of which I’m particularly concerned are those emerging from the deep-level geopolitical and cultural aspects of a local market: the qualities of a culture that are highly meaningful to local consumers yet typically very difficult for an outsider to discern. Such subtle business risks often escalate in a direct relationship to the depth at which a local culture is offended by an issue. In other words, the greater the local consumer’s devotion to their deep cultural values and practices, the greater the potential for content to cause an unintended reaction (i.e., usually a negative response).

How does a content creator begin to map out the unknown risks of a local culture? While this space is insufficient to go into all the required detail, I can at least offer these three basic steps:

1. Be aware: Comprehension of the reality of geopolitical and cultural risks in content is often 50% of the challenge in starting to address them. The majority of professionals with whom I work are mostly unaware of the implications of their creative choices. And that makes sense – they’re focused on creation of great games, etc. and not worrying about how their vision impacts any particular group. And yet, their decisions can and will have repercussions on a cultural level so at least being mindful of the possibility can be empowering.

2. Be proactive: Many businesses realize, and my own experience with cultural issues confirms, that it is far less expensive and disruptive to find and resolve a potentially problematic content issue as early as possible during production than to deal with it far downstream. So stepping back from the creative process once in a while and asking the hard questions about potential cultural compatibility can save a tremendous about of time and money.

3. Be committed: Ultimately, the key to long-term success in managing the geopolitical and cultural issues is to make the commitment to invest in resources, training and processes that are necessary to stay aware and proactive.

Over the years, one comment I’ve often heard in response to my admonitions and advice about such culturalization issues goes something like this: “This geopolitical and cultural stuff is all very fascinating but it’s not very applicable to my creative work.” Well, when we consider the wide range of businesses, there are some that are clearly more susceptible to unknown geopolitical and cultural content risks. Content-intensive products and information services (such as games, movies, television, web sites, reference works, educational/training materials, marketing/PR materials) are especially vulnerable by their very nature, which includes heavy use of text, icons, clip art, maps, flags, photos, videos, and so forth. By this broad definition, virtually any content that must communicate to local customers carries potential risk.

If you still harbor doubts about the pervasiveness of these issues, consider how a single, specific geopolitical issue can impact such a diverse group of content and products in the following example.

Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir

Known to cartographers for decades as a very problematic issue, the region of Jammu and Kashmir in Central Asia has proven very complex for businesses which produce and/or deploy maps of the region as part of or in association with their products. Unknown to many companies that do business in India, the local government has regulations against the use of an “unapproved” map; i.e., if the region of Jammu and Kashmir is not represented wholly as an Indian state (which is the assertion of the Indian government’s geopolitical imagination), then government and consumer backlash are certain outcomes, such as the following examples:

News Media: CNN was accused of doctoring a web-based map to remove Jammu and Kashmir as Indian territory, which yielded much backlash from Indian customers. Fox News made a similar error in January of 2001.

Food Products: The Cadbury company produced advertising for their Temptations chocolate bar in India which compared the confection to the Kashmir dispute, complete with a map of Kashmir in their marketing that stated: “I’m good. I’m tempting. I’m too good to share. What am I? — Cadbury’s Temptations or Kashmir?”

Cadbury Ad

Cadbury Ad

Software: Microsoft first discovered this issue when a time zone control panel feature in the Windows 95 operating system was incorrect from the Indian perspective, resulting in a costly recall, fix and reissue of the software.

© Microsoft Corp.

Microsoft Error

Educational Toys: An educational toy globe with electronic features, the Quantum Leap Explorer Globe, mistakenly showed Jammu and Kashmir as an independent country distinct from India and Pakistan and resulted in public backlash within India.

Controversial Educational Toy

Controversial Educational Toy

If one considers that Jammu and Kashmir is but one of many, many possible geopolitical and cultural issues and that maps are just one type of content that could potentially hinder the intent of creative content in a locale, it becomes clear that no particular type of enterprise is truly immune from the effects of an unforeseen, potentially damaging content issue.

Proactive measures can be taken to avert a loss of revenue and perhaps worse, a loss of public image, if the creative forces involved are committed to take proper steps and make minimal investments in being mindful of this dynamic. With even a modest amount of awareness around the potential risks, coupled with a desire to strive to deliver positive experiences for local consumers, it’s entirely possible to maintain one’s core creative vision while thinking more geostrategically. And in turn, you just might take some of the incognita out of the periculum.

Image Credits:
1. Jammu and Kashmir
2. Jammu and Kashmir
3. Cadbury Ad
4. Microsoft Error: (author’s screen grab)
5. Controversial Educational Toy

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How Adapting Content to Cultural Expectations Intersects with the Practice of Censorship
Kate Edwards / Geogrify


Censorship is a contentious political issue.

“Censorship” – it’s considered such a strong, polarizing word in the English language and particularly in the United States where the concept of “freedom of speech” is one of the highest held principles and enshrined in the nation’s Constitution. Censorship is typically defined as the suppression of information which could be perceived as offensive, sensitive, politically incorrect or potentially harmful. This determination is most often made by the institutions that govern a particular locale, such as governments, media, and other local institutions such as the faith system and/or citizens’ groups.

Most of us clearly understand the notion of censorship and would likely all agree that it’s an unwelcome part of any society, especially in today’s plethora of virtual spaces where the flow of information is not only expected but is being perceived as a fundamental human right. Yet over the course of history, institutions have long wielded their power to censor – which essentially means to suppress, alter or enhance information in ways meant to protect the institution’s existence and/or continue to reinforce a particular reality or worldview that is considered most beneficial to the populace.

Censorship usually implies intention, in that certain pieces of information are being enhanced or suppressed for a specific purpose. Whereas propaganda is focused on emphasizing a specific message in order to influence opinion in a desired direction, censorship is almost the opposite: removing a specific piece of content to avoid influencing perception in a certain negative direction.

Cultures have leveraged both censorship and propaganda in their own ways and for various reasons throughout their histories. But one key factor we need to recognize is the difference between censorship and cultural expectations. Censorship most often does connote negativity in purpose but the adaptation of content to cultural expectations can occur for many reasons, some of which may seem like censorship or even propaganda when in fact it’s serving what we construe to be the majority opinion about a fact in a specific locale.

When the South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication complained about the PC-based game Age of Empires and its version of history, and requested a change in order to allow the game to be distributed, was this censorship or just meeting cultural expectation? In the game, the Choson Empire on the Korean peninsula had to fend off the invading Yamato forces from Japan and were overwhelmed, which is essentially what the historical record tells us. The South Korean government strongly disagreed with this “interpretation” of their history, claiming that the Choson people were never overpowered to the degree shown in the game. As a result, a special patch for the South Korean version had to be created that changed history for South Korean players to the degree that the Choson Empire invaded the Yamatos in southern Japan.

Age of Empires

The invasion of the Choson Empire by Yamatos in Age of Empires.

For most forms of popular media, governments now maintain some form of ratings board to flag issues that they feel might be particularly problematic along specific categories. Most typically this means reviewing content for the “big three”: sex, violence and profanity, but the cultural sensitivity to each of these areas varies widely from locale to locale. For example, South Korea’s Game Ratings Board (GRB) didn’t exist when the Age of Empires issue occurred but today it’s known to be particularly attuned to the “big three” as well as any political and cultural nuances that may portray South Korea in a negative light. In the U.S., there’s the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), and for Germany the Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK), the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system for Europe, and the Video Standards Council (VSC) in the U.K. – just to name a few. For film, there’s a wide variety of ratings bodies, such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in the U.S. and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the U.K.

ESRB Ratings

The ratings assigned to games in the U.S. by the ESRB.

Some would argue that the role of these bodies is to effectively act as censors, working to extract content from creative works that may be deemed harmful or sensitive to consumers and/or otherwise negatively reflect the local culture (such as the use of blatant cultural stereotypes). From the viewpoint of the ratings boards, it’s a matter of tailoring content to local expectation. However, it’s critical to highlight the fine line between careful tailoring and blatant suppression. Culturalization is focused on preserving the core intent of creative content and simply ensuring it’s compatible with local customs and expectations. Censorship takes another turn towards an active suppression of facts that may remain relevant to a culture but for various reasons, the central authority may want to ignore those facts for their own purposes.

One of the more controversial examples has been the ongoing tendency of the Japanese government to rewrite their history textbooks to modify certain aspects of their imperialistic past, particularly as related to World War II. In Japan, textbooks go through a rigorous process of review by the Ministry of Education to ensure that it meets specific standards and guidelines. In recent years, the government has faced increased criticism around their supposedly objective review process, wherein textbooks which negatively portray Imperial Japan and its aggression during World War II are rejected, partially under pressure from the more conservative government. In 2000, a group of right-wing scholars produced the “New History Textbook” which put a positive spin on Imperial Japan’s actions and drew considerable backlash from inside Japan and beyond. In June 2007, over 100,000 people protested in Okinawa after the Ministry of Education suggested that the Japanese military’s role in forced suicides in 1945 on Okinawa be deemphasized for the history books. And the controversies around revisionist history in Japan have persisted since. This type of revisionist move by Japan evokes calls of censorship as well as generates backlash not only from Japanese citizens who desire a truthful rendition of history but also from countries that were affected by Imperial Japan’s actions, most notably China and South Korea.


Newsweek cover story on Japan’s revisionist history.

Is the historical revision of Japan’s role in World War II a case of cultural tailoring or blatant censorship? Based on the reactions even within Japan, it could be concluded as a clear case of factual suppression. This then calls attention to the issue of how one gauges “majority” opinion and what constitutes a case of censorship. In most of the cases I’ve ever dealt with in creative content, it was an issue of very specific, surgical tailoring to ensure that a single content element doesn’t set off a wave of local backlash. And in most of these cases, it was related to deeper cultural sensitivities such as religious faith, ethnicity and cultural stereotyping.

However, some types of content lend themselves quite easily to censorship, mainly because they are so closely tied to government messaging and/or perception of government control. Probably the best example of this would be the use of maps in information products. Sometimes the map must be tailored to meet the widely-accepted local expectations, but more often the maps are revised for local consumption due to a government’s strict policy on how their territory must be displayed. If you ship a product to India that doesn’t show all of the disputed Kashmir region as Indian territory, it will be censored. If you ship a map to China that doesn’t show Taiwan as part of greater China, it will be quickly censored. Part of the impetus depends on how tightly the government desires to control the message of the content, and with the visual nature of maps and the government’s desire to reinforce their perception of territorial sovereignty (what I call their “geopolitical imagination”), blatant suppression is the only way they see to limiting exposure to an alternative viewpoint.


Depictions of Kashmir region in Google Maps.

For those of us who create content, and especially those responsible for global distribution, we need to remain very cognizant of our decision-making and strategy – whether we are carefully tailoring to positively meet expectations or if we are serving the cause of local censorship because of government restrictions. This is a core dilemma for many multinational businesses; at which point will a business decide to not cross a line, effectively the “moral compass” of the company? There is no easy answer to this question and it varies from company to company.

Image Credits:
1. Censorship is a contentious political issue.
2. The invasion of the Choson Empire by Yamatos in Age of Empires. (author’s screen grab)
3. The ratings assigned to games in the U.S. by the ESRB.
4. Newsweek cover story on Japan’s revisionist history.
5. Depictions of Kashmir region in Google Maps. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

Some Locations Matter: HGTV’s Uneven Relationship With Spatial Capital
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University

Love It Or List It

Love It Or List It Vancouver or, as it’s known in the United States and around the world, Love It Or List It, Too

Location matters on HGTV. Given that the cable channel has become increasingly focused on the home in “home and garden television” through its expansive slate of real estate and renovation programming, programs like House Hunters and House Hunters International are built on distinct local cultures that shape episodic storytelling and offer viewers a glimpse at another city, country, or continent. However, HGTV’s relationship with what I frame as “spatial capital”—the value space and place take on within a given text across its production, distribution, and reception—is inconsistent, and reveals a dichotomy between different forms of HGTV programming. While the House Hunters franchise uses location as a central form of episodic variation, other sections of HGTV’s lineup negotiate spatial capital in two very different ways: as one group of programming erases evidence of spatial capital, an emerging set of programs are being framed as explicitly local, a choice that reveals HGTV’s brand identity as a fundamentally dislocated one.

Two of HGTV’s most popular franchises, Love It or List It and Property Brothers, are notable for their lack of engagement with location: both shows film episodes in multiple locations, but these locations are almost never mentioned explicitly in the episodes, a choice that creates a stark contrast from series like House Hunters where location is so central to the narrative. The same value that location adds to those shows—nuances of local markets, specific regional architecture details, etc.—would theoretically be valuable to these two series, but it is absent despite emerging in the Property Brothers spinoff Brothers Take New Orleans, where Drew and Jonathan Scott competed renovating homes in the Louisiana city.

Notably, however, these shows also share an origin: they are both Canadian co-productions with cable channel W Network, with many of their episodes being filmed and set in Canada (predominantly in Ontario). Although both also film episodes in the United States, the choice to elide location means that only savvy viewers who recognize Canadian brands—this is me—or catch the occasional accent would be able to identify the cross-border nature of the productions. This is achieved through vague references to “the city” or “downtown” where more specifics would be more logical, and in the case of one episode of Canadian co-production Income Property (now on sister channel DIY Network) ADR to replace Toronto with “this city” to keep from disrupting the illusion.

Although HGTV has never commented on this decision, in context it reads as an acknowledgment that the Canadianness of these series is negative spatial capital for the channel’s American audience. This is most evident in the branding of spinoff series Love It Or List It, Too, which debuted on HGTV in 2013. In HGTV’s announcement of the series’ impending launch, the distinction between the show and its progenitor is nonexistent, with no difference in concept outside of featuring two different hosts. However, Love It Or List It, Too is actually produced and distributed in Canada as Love It Or List It Vancouver, with all of its houses in and around the British Columbia city. The result is two fundamentally different versions of the same show: while the Canadian version features specific shots of the city and local product placement, these elements are excised for the U.S. version, where the pacific northwest landscapes and the presence of Bachelorette Jillian Harris—who is originally from Canada—allow American audiences to assume the show is set in Seattle or Portland.

We can contrast the erasure of spatial capital in Love It Or List It, Too to the ongoing franchising of Flip or Flop, HGTV’s house flipping franchise that also debuted in 2013. The original series focuses on houses in Southern California, with Tarek and Christina buying and renovating homes in a range of communities in and around Los Angeles. However, when the show began franchising in 2017, there was no anxiety at HGTV about acknowledging the role of spatial capital, with each spinoff named by its shift in location. While Love It Or List It Vancouver was apparently not acceptable to HGTV, the April 2017 debut of Flip or Flop Vegas, and the pending debut of spinoffs set in Atlanta, Nashville, Chicago, and Texas adopt identical franchising logics, suggesting that this approach is acceptable in instances where the cities carry positive spatial capital with their target audience. Location matters to HGTV, but the channel negotiates spatial capital carefully: while shows like Hawaii Life contain spatial capital that is valuable for their audience, Love It Or List It Vancouver failed to contain the value HGTV felt was best for its channel.

Flip Or Flop Promo

Promo for the upcoming localized spinoffs of Flip Or Flop—Flip Or Flop Vegas debuted in April 2017, with the rest to follow over the follow two years

Therefore, it is not that HGTV does not value location, but rather that it values particular types of locations, which does not include Canadian urban centers. Elsewhere, however, HGTV’s relationship with spatial capital is intensifying with the success of Fixer Upper and the recent launch of Home Town, series that reorient the renovation process in strongly local terms. Fixer Upper features Chip and Joanna Gaines, a husband and wife team who work with home buyers in and around Waco, Texas to discover homes in need of improvement and turn it into their dream home. Home Town, similarly, features Ben and Erin Napier, who work with buyers to find homes in need of some “love” in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi and designing a renovation to give them everything they’re looking for.

Waco and Laurel are not large metropolitan centers: the former is a small city most well known for being the home of Baylor University, while Laurel is a town of only twenty thousand people. However, Fixer Upper developed a programming model in which the local dimension of the show became linked with the ability for audiences to connect with the stars: each episode begins with Chip and Joanna with their four children, either on the family farm or out and about in Waco, and episodes feature huge numbers of establishing shots of the city alongside narratives like Baylor employees looking to live close to the university. They have renovated houses for their close friends, rely on local business owners like furniture maker Clint Harper for multiple projects, and in a series-long project purchased and renovated an abandoned warehouse into “Magnolia Market at the Silos,” now a major tourist destination for the city. While Fixer Upper is not framed as a show about Waco, it has fundamentally functioned as one as it is renovated one house at a time, with an emerging AirBNB market for homes featured on the series.

Home Town, however, takes this one step further: in marketing for the new series, the series is explicitly pitched through the lens of restoring the American small town. In a 2016 blog post reflecting on producing the show’s pilot, the Napiers write that “it’s a renovation show on paper, but it’s a show about finding your place in a small town at its heart.” When the homebuyers choose a house, the Napiers’ excitement is less about the new owners and more about the fact that this particular home—given a “name” based on its previous owners—is going to finally get the love it deserves. Like Fixer Upper, the show’s homebuyers disappear almost entirely once the house is chosen, leaving it to document the Napiers’ personal quest to restore their town, which lines up with the fact they were “discovered” based on their work on restoration projects organized by local government.

Beyond creating a new, emerging HGTV tourism market for Waco, these shows demonstrate HGTV’s capacity to develop localized forms of spatial capital, creating direct links between stars and locations in order to deepen the audience’s relationship with these series. The result, however, is an HGTV lineup with a schizophrenic relationship with spatial capital: while location might matter implicitly in any real estate-based programming, on HGTV the intensely local airs alongside the placeless unknown, a channel of dislocation in it current iteration.

Image Credits:

1.Love It Or List It Vancouver and Love It Or List It, Too Promo Image (author’s screen grab)
2. Flip Or Flop Promo Image (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.