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

"They can absolutely make you, or they can punch you down," said John Gothold, creative director of the Orange County office of ad agency DGWB. "If they think you're lying to them, they will bury you."

Ask the folks at Levi Strauss. They tried marketing strategies on members of Generation Y that had worked with their parents. Sales plummeted. The company laid off thousands. Much of its market share shifted to Tommy Hilfiger, who advertised at surf and skate functions and put video-game stations in their stores. Reaching Generation Y is more difficult because it doesn't tend to tune into the homogenous tastemaking powers of network TV. Rather, this group has been raised on niche networks, niche magazines and that king god of niche culture, the Internet.

How do you sell to that? You come to Orange County. You make the drive from Burbank to San Juan Capistrano. You look for validation from the staff of Surfer. You say to them, "We noticed that the ads in Surfer were going for a younger and younger demographic." You tell them that Surfer provided "visual guides and references" and was, in fact, in many ways, the model for the Rocket Power cartoon characters, since a lot of Klasky Csupo animators and producers are from Eastern Europe. (Gabor Csupo is from Hungary.)

"There's no surfing on the Black Sea," you say. "It's virtually impossible to explain an ollie to an Eastern European. You have to have something that shows them."

And you also don't do what Orange County surf companies don't do—that is, you don't depend on focus groups. You can't put 11-year-olds in focus groups; they think they're in school and just give you the answers they think you want to hear. Instead, you go out to the beaches where the kids are, and you ask them what they like and what they don't like. From that, you make Mountain Dew commercials about wide-eyed snowboarders, subtly conveying the message that these extreme beings are jonesing on the Dew's voluminous caffeine. You make a Sprite campaign that says, "Image Is Nothing," using a skater eating it on a vert ramp, telling kids they are way too smart to be sold anything, all the while selling more Sprite than ever.

Surf and its various incarnations—skate, snowboarding, the execrable "extreme" sports umbrella—are effective sellers because they personify individuality (big seller), anti-materialism (big seller), rebellion (really big seller). They've been selling since the '60s. (The '60s is a big seller.) They sell even better today, when the act of rebellion is usually limited to the brand you buy: wearing Nike means one thing; wearing Vans means another. In surfing, all of these images converge, people take from it what they will, and they take it in a sexy package—revolution without the messy teeming masses, rebellion without sacrifice.

If you are what you buy, then it's becoming apparent that more and more people with money would like to think of themselves as, if not surfers, at least of that mindset. And that's why more and more people with something to sell come to Orange County, to Surfer, to the beaches, to talk to the kids, to understand it, to co-opt it, and to make money from it.

Of course, the freeway runs two directions. As the meeting at Surfer magazine winds down, the producers of Rocket Power fantasize aloud about how wonderful it would be if the magazine would not only review the show but would also contrive some Q & A interviews with the cartoon characters—who would answer, of course, in the correct lingo. Heads nod around the room. Then a magazine staffer speaks up: "If we did that, maybe we could get into some cross-promotion, you know, where the kids on the cartoon are shown reading Surfer." Laughter follows immediately; then, just as suddenly, the rooms shifts into a communal "hmmmm" as everyone realizes the suggestion was no joke.

John Severson sold Surfer in 1971 and ended up in Maui. Severson still surfs regularly, still does graphic arts and is still somewhat amazed at surfing's staying power in the marketplace. "To be honest, I thought it had peaked in 1971," he says. "But it just keeps going up, with just minor dips every now and then. It's like the stock market."

After starting Surfer magazine in 1960, it took years for Severson to attract advertisers who weren't intimately tied to actual surfing. Now the magazine carries ads for the Navy, cookies and music. Although he's not surprised—"I always thought it was glamorous; I knew it was a good image"—Severson says the sheer breadth of it all does make him chuckle sometimes. He contends the image still sells because "it captures so many things that a young person would get excited about. It represents freedom."

The only thing that has changed is the people doing the selling. "We were surfers who kind of fell into business," he says. "Today they're businessmen first, surfers second."

"We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest." Poet and Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote that. In 1948. Before Teletubbies; before $120 jeans and neon-pink beepers; before Nickelodeon's Teen Choice Awards, which awarded winners surfboards as trophies; before $120 sneakers; before Toys R Us, Kids R Us, Gap Kids and Sports Illustrated for Kids; before minivans, SUVs and two-toned troop carriers with cup holders and built-in VCRs. Before Michael Eisner.

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