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.

"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.

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.

"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.

Skate kids who are sickened by skate contests sponsored by Hilfiger—or shows about skating on Nickelodeon or surfing on the Disney Channel (anybody catch Johnny Tsunami?) have taken to staging their own underground contests in Orange County. They do it at homes, sometimes abandoned, with empty swimming pools. It's invite only. No press. No pub. No hype. Just the real people. Pure. No Nike or Hilfiger. They're having one this month somewhere, though you'll never know. Just like you didn't know about the one they had in April somewhere on the Huntington Beach-Fountain Valley border. There they were, just skaters . . . and a few merchant booths, including one from Adidas as well as a local skate shop.

Backlashes are big sellers.

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