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

"Surfing can be goofy; it can be rebellious, individual. It's environmentally friendly; it's fun," he says. "It embodies sexuality and spirituality, and the people doing it are beautiful, wet and practically naked. I mean, that's some powerful shit."

On this July evening, Gothold, Mayo and the Erkeneffs have organized a symposium for the Orange County AdClub. Called "Tapping the Fountain of Youth: Why Orange County's Juice Is Saltwater," it's held in Costa Mesa's Tiki Bar, which sits across the street from a business park. Representatives of the local surf industry attend. They are greeted at the door with name tags and plastic leis and are fed fish tacos. They talk about Generation Y, about what the press release calls "spreading propaganda to the youth of America." (Rest in peace, Brother Merton.) In the same release, the evening's moderator, Surfing's Marckx, sets the stakes. "Look around today at the fashion trends and the methods of marketing them, and surfing has a ubiquitous presence," he says. "So much so that we see gross plagiarism by larger mass-marketers seeking to get into the pockets of the influential boarding generation."

After mixing, they sit for the panel discussion, which is led off by a video segment. Images of surfing appear, and a man on the screen says, "If it starts here, it goes worldwide because everyone knows it's the legitimate stuff." In fact, the reason the surf industry is centered here has nothing to do with legitimacy or being hipper or, as everyone in the video allows, that the waves in Orange County are even very good. Instead, it's the same cold market forces that deemed the steel industry would be centered in Pittsburgh or that Detroit would be the hub of the car industry: access to a natural resource (beaches, waves), people with money to harness those resources in start-up companies (Orange County is the second most affluent county in America), and, most important, a low-cost labor force (Santa Ana and Garden Grove are just 20 minutes from the beach.) The room erupts with laughter when a voice says, "Kids can sniff a phony out in a heartbeat" as the screen is taken up by a guy with a ponytail, a surfboard in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He's not real, that's for sure. Of course, he bought the surfboard and board shorts from somebody. While they wouldn't want to market directly at that guy—that's what killed the credibility of Ocean Pacific and Hang Ten—they market to the people who influence what he will buy.

When Taylor Whisenand, marketing director of Quiksilver, says, "If the guy in Iowa wants to buy our stuff, fine. But we don't want to alienate the kids at Saltwater Creek. We won't do anything nationally that would alienate our core market," he's saying so because the guy in Iowa doesn't want the kids at Saltwater to be alienated. He wants the real stuff. If the kids at Saltwater Creek want Quiksilver, that's what he wants, too. In fact, maybe he'll buy it when he's visiting San Diego's Sea World, since it's sold inside at that theme park's "surf shop."

As Bill Sharp, editor of Surf News, points out, "The amount of people and companies in the surf industry have increased tenfold since 1980, while the amount of people actually surfing has maybe doubled in that time. That means those companies are selling most of their stuff to people who don't surf."

Still, the evening's message is to keep it real, which is repeated, mantra-like, throughout. How is the industry going to handle Hilfiger? Nike? Kellogg's? Keep it real. How is it going to handle saturation? Keep it real. How is it going to handle an unpopular professional tour that has no TV deal to speak of? Keep it real.

Keeping it real is a big seller. Tommy Hilfiger can't penetrate the market because "Tommy Hilfiger isn't run by surfers," says one panelist. "Tommy Hilfiger isn't in the water every day with the kids. They can sniff a phony. They're not going to buy Hilfiger just because they watch the X Games."

As the panel discussion ends, Mayo announces that the next AdClub meeting will take place in October and its topic will be "Marketing Luxury Products." With that, he thanks everyone for coming.

The evening went well, though Mayo admits the keeping-it-real theme got a bit comic after awhile. "I thought that was a little funny and more than a little ironic," he says. "I mean, we're still talking about advertising. And here are all these companies in, what I've heard, is the second most affluent county in America, and they're all interested in getting as much money as they can. I think you have to take that 'authentic' talk with a big grain of salt. They want to be as authentic as they need to be to sell product."

There is a backlash. There always is. Local kids who think the surf industry is out of touch. Companies like Mossimo, Quiksilver and Billabong have gotten too big. They buy local, authentic, real. They buy Volcom shorts at $45 a shot. Anticipating this, having talked to the kids, a couple of seasons back, some companies came up with plain white T-shirts. No company designation save for the tag. What could be more real? What could be more genuine? Go into a surf shop, and you can still find them—on sale. They're kids, not Quakers.

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