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

There has never been a time when Americans haven't been hard-selling. But the buyers have changed. "When I was a kid, I didn't have a credit card," notes Bruce Mayo, creative director of Newport Beach-based Lawrence, Mayo & Ponder ad agency. And the younger customers aren't easier marks, he says. "These kids can see bullshit a mile away."

When Mayo was growing up in La Mirada in the 1960s, he bought right into the bullshit that was the Beach Boys and Gidget, and he got himself a surfboard. When he got down to the beach and found out that the guys didn't wear collared striped shirts and the girls didn't look like Sandra Dee, he marked it up to experience and moved on. Today, you do that to a kid, to a customer, "and you won't get a second chance." You'll lose them, and chances are you'll lose their parents since many of them take cues from their kids. Poet Robert Bly derides it as "the sibling society," but you might more easily recognize it as 38-year-old women in Roxy spaghetti-strap tanks walking on the arms of their skate shoe-shod husbands.

Orange County's surf industry has long known the best way to sell to kids. They went out to where their customers were. All that stuff about surf companies bolting the office anytime the surf came up makes for good copy, but, truth is, they're not leaving the office—they're just relocating it. Being in the water is their conference room, where they can sit for hours and ask kids what they think about a T-shirt that looks like this and sunglasses that look like that. More than any particular answer, they get an attitude.

As important as what the kids tell them they want is what the kids tell them they don't: no hard sell, which is why the majority of surf companies don't contract with ad agencies. They do it in-house. They do it because of what happened to Killer Loop Sunglasses. An ad exec—the future Denise Erkeneff—working for a New York firm, was handling that account. At the time, she was dating a Southern California surfer and, in talking to him, decided the best way to go with print ads was understated. She went to her bosses, who said her boyfriend, Rick Erkeneff, was an idiot—worse, he was from California, and those people didn't know advertising. New York knew advertising. What they went with was a picture of a naked woman standing in the middle of Manhattan and holding a fish aloft, the fish having a spear in its head. The copy was something ridiculous about life being a fish, and you should take a stab . . . something. The campaign not only flopped, but it also seriously harmed Killer Loop's reputation in the industry and with the industry's customers. It tried too hard, it was too contrived, and, worse, it glorified a kind of aggressive behavior at odds with surfers who daily share space with fish. Not long after, Denise moved west and married Rick. They are partners in R & D Graphics Marketing, which handles such surf accounts as Killer Dana surf shop, which, not too long ago, opened Killer Dana for Kids in an adjoining space. New York ad firms "have just started to catch on," Denise says. Surf companies "out here know how to sell to this new generation. People in New York look to what's happening out here. I think it's funny: they've always been so dismissive of California. Now they learn from us."

So what do they learn about selling?

Not to sell. Not selling is a big seller since kids are so sophisticated when it comes to advertising. Though that doesn't necessarily make them smarter. "In some ways, they're wiser," Mayo says, "but in some ways, you can use that to manipulate them. You don't sell products to them. You present them. You make it seem as if you're leaving the decision up to them. That's just a part of the business. The medium is always changing. The message shouldn't."

And the message doesn't change as much as cycle. The seeming no-sell was pioneered by folks pushing 7-Up and Volkswagen in the 1960s. Simple, self-effacing, funny, Us (smart, savvy, no-nonsense) against Them (sheepish, conventional, discursive). It works just as well today. It's not surprising that both 7-Up and Volkswagen have returned to their ad roots and prospered. (Favorite ad of the '90s: Volkswagen Bug billboard. Simple, flat image of a new VW. Simple line reads: "0 to 60? Yes.")

Surf ads are simple, driven almost totally by an arresting image and a few, if any, words outside of the company logo. The message is you're too smart for a sales pitch (buythis), we can't fool you (reallyforyourowngoodbuythis), we're not even going to try (buythisoryouwillnevergetlaid).

It's a simple formula. Airlines—where the epigrammatic wisdom has it that you don't sell flying, you sell Paris—have done it for years. Surf companies sell . . .

"Just about anything," says DGWB's Gothold. His company is attempting to resuscitate the fortunes of Ocean Pacific, the onetime giant who kids thought sold too hard. In the September issue of Surfer, the full-page OP ad is simple—faces of girls at the beach, the copy consisting of "OP 100% Original" and a Web site address in tiny letters.

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