Orange Countys Radical Culture Czars

Economists fear him. Adults emulate him. This kidand thousands like himare teaching corporations how to sell the world everything from edgy soft drinks to extreme sunglasses

Little girl watching TV. Bright girl, 8 years old. Enjoys constructing alternate scenarios to Barbie-doll commercials, usually involving Barbie's head being torn off. "Bring in the Rottweiler!" girl shouts at TV, while Barbie in-line skates. Little girl knows when she's being sold something. Doesn't like it. Watching Pop-Tarts commercial, she sees kids in surf/skatewear and attitude go about business of being surf/skate kids, aware of camera but seemingly too cool to care. Girl knows about Pop-Tarts; her father has described their construction—"It's like this colored ooze inside this crust thing"—to which the 8-year-old has replied, "That's disgusting!" Commercial ends as father walks in room. Little girl turns to him, says, "Daddy, will you buy me Pop-Tarts?"

Surfer magazine is located in an unremarkable San Juan Capistrano business park and, on the outside, its offices look pretty unremarkable, too. Inside, past the few still-damp wet suits usually strewn around the entrance, it's a clean, industrially chic space, casual but purposeful. This is the magazine John Severson started almost 40 years ago. Lots of people consider it surfing's bible, but it's more important than that. Many—including Michael Marckx, associate publisher of rival Surfing magazine—consider Surfer the reason the multibillion-dollar surf industry settled in Orange County and evolved into what it is. "Orange County became the epicenter not because the best waves were here or even the best surfers," says Marckx. "It happened because John Severson lived here. When he created Surfer, that became the tool. Media drives the perception. From that, you can manipulate the minds of people so they will buy your stuff. Severson—Surfer—molded the message."

On this spring day, the staff of Surfer, molders of a culture, are seated around a conference table and watching a cartoon. The cartoon is called Rocket Power, and it features several rather frenetically drawn kid characters skating and surfing. The cartoon has been created by Klasky Csupo Inc., the same company that created generation touchstone Rugrats, Nickelodeon's No. 1-rated cartoon, and followed it up last year with The Wild Thornberrys, the network's No. 2 show. Rugrats came about because Arlene Klasky had kids and wondered what her babies were thinking, what they said to one another in their coos. Rocket Power, which premiered Aug. 16, came about because Klasky's kids had gotten a few years older and were now skating and surfing and snowboarding and reading skate/surf/snowboard magazines and wearing skate/surf/snowboard clothes. Nickelodeon is very excited about Rocket Power—and not just because it would be excited about a cartoon featuring cribbage-playing mollusks if it were produced by Klasky Csupo. The surf/skate images in Rocket Power are right in the wheelhouse of advertisers, who have come to see the surf culture as central to pushing product to a generation that will soon rule American capitalism, if it doesn't already.

The producers have come to Surfer because selling a show about surfing and skating demands authenticity, or at least a convincing portrayal of it. Authenticity is a big seller. That's what the kids who buy Quiksilver board shorts in Indianapolis want, what the surf scene's tastemakers—who live and surf and start clothing companies in Orange County—have anointed authentic. The kids demand such reality in all things related to surf, and that's a lot of things: surfing, skating and snowboarding are being used to sell everything from Pop-Tarts to Nissan trucks to Frosted Flakes to the new Tarzan movie. In that movie, Tarzan not only swings from vines but also surfs on tree branches. He also skates on a McDonald's Happy Meal toy that features him riding a rough-hewn board.

"Frankly, we're looking for an endorsement from you," Michael Bloom, co-producer of Rocket Power, tells the staff of Surfer. "We want the show to be seen as being as realistic as possible."

The producers say they're open to all advice that will make the cartoon seem more real. In fact, they've employed Surfer contributing editor Gabe Sullivan to do research for the show, mostly having to do with its use of language; incorrect or dated language will quickly condemn the show as phony. But Sullivan must also make sure that the jargon he suggests is G-rated, that it isn't too technical, and that it travels without incident (one term the show was going to use to describe a particular maneuver was rejected when someone discovered it translated roughly into "vagina" in some languages). It's a lot of work, but it's necessary. Research has told Klasky Csupo, Nickelodeon and all the companies that want to sell products on their show that the target generation of Rocket Power—kids 6 to 11 and, peripherally, their siblings from 5 to 19—is sophisticated in all things media. Variously called Generation Y and Echo Boomers, these kids have been inundated with more media images at an earlier age than any generation in history; they experience several thousand ads per day compared with their boomer parents, who saw them in the mere hundreds. They have never known anything but product placement in TV shows; tie-ins between movies and fast food; product Web sites; and the corporate sponsorship of sporting events, public schools and entire cities. Increasingly, this 5-to-19 group is the focus of the ads because they are 60 million strong—three times the size of Generation X, which has been dropped by advertisers like a hot, ironic, disaffected potato. It's a generation that doesn't like the idea of being sold anything, although there's no denying that it loves to buy. Its members have been raised in a booming economy: they are relatively optimistic, embrace capitalism and, most important, are choosing their brand loyalties right now.

Next Page »