Is It GOOD or BAD to Use a Dynamite-Triggered Avalanche for an Apple Ad? We Asked Scientists

Apple’s “Don’t mess with Mother (Nature)” video—produced by the Camp4 Collective to promote the iPhone XS—included footage of a man-made avalanche.

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Apr 18 2019, 6:48pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Apple’s latest promotional video for the iPhone XS, released last September, includes a stunning scene: a massive avalanche storming down a mountaintop, enveloping everything below in an opaque cloud of white snow.

The video—produced by Camp4 Collective—is called “Don’t mess with Mother.” It’s a part of a “Shot With iPhone XS” video marketing campaign, aimed at demonstrating the product’s ability to capture scenes from nature.

But it’s not exactly “nature” (at least in the intuitive sense that most people typically understand the word). According to a behind-the-scenes video for the advertisement, the staggering avalanche shown in the video is manmade.

“The Making of Don’t mess with Mother,” posted on YouTube today, shows that explosives were used in order to generate the avalanche scene used in the video.

Motherboard emailed Dave McClung, a professor of avalanche engineering and research at the University of British Columbia, and asked if there's anything that we can geographically conclude about this avalanche, based on the video.

“It was triggered by helicopter bombing in the San Juan Mtns. of SW Colorado. The snow is dry in the avalanche. It looks to be about size 3 on the 1-5 destructive scale,” McClung said.

When reached for comment, a representative from Camp4 Collective referred Motherboard to Apple. In a phone call to Motherboard, an Apple spokesperson said that the avalanche in the video had already been scheduled by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Now granted, it’s not bad that this was a controlled avalanche. Capturing a controlled avalanche rather than looking for a real one is a safer option for everyone involved. And of course, controlled avalanches serve an important purpose: they break the stress of giant slabs of snow, preventing them from fracturing on their own and hurting people.

However, the marketing of a dangerous event like an avalanche raises complicated questions about how we interact with natural landscapes.

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, a geologist at Western Washington University who studies the seismic signals produced by landslides and avalanches, told Motherboard in an email that the footage of the controlled avalanche didn't bother her as much as other sequences in the behind-the-scenes video.

“I have personal (not scientific) objection to the marketing of hazards," Caplan-Auerbach said. "For example, the video also shows someone filming a volcanic eruption and engaging with sharks (although it's not clear what type of shark)—those are both activities that I'd rather we not encourage."

She added that the video depicts a particular type of culture, in terms of human relationships with the non-human world.

“Honestly, the bro-culture machismo of the behind-the-scenes video bothers me more than the original footage,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “It isn't the footage per se that is the problem in my mind, it's the commentary that glorifies danger and survival.”

However, other experts think that the video’s messaging is helpful. Bruce Jamieson, a controlled avalanche engineer for the firm Snowline, told Motherboard in an email that footage of controlled avalanches can be effective in educating people about the risk of avalanches.

“I know little about marketing but don't see a problem with using such footage for marketing,” Jamieson said.

Perry Bartlet, a scientist at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, said that iPhone videos are very helpful for avalanche research.

"We use them to constrain avalanche speed, powder cloud height, release location etc.” he said. “Sometimes we even try to geo-reference the videos, but this still remains difficult. The better the video quality, the better for us.

There are ancient and politically complicated reasons that most people think of “nature” as separate from human culture. In the context of climate change, this distinction is arguably counter-productive.

However, the video definitely sells a particular type of relationship for people to have with the non-human world, which is compatible with a particular type of person: the financially stable male adventurer. Perhaps that isn’t so different than the target customer for an iPhone XS.

Update April 18, 2019: This article was updated to include comment from Apple.