The Power Of Words

There is no doubt that the mainstreaming of skateboarding is a mixed blessing.

A lot more people can make a very good living now, but as a result we all have to put up with a lot of misrepresentation and exploitation. We have to tolerate the barrage of all things “extreme.”

There is an Extreme Pizza in my neighborhood; Nissan has an SUV called the X-terra; there are firms that offer “Extreme Consulting”; we’re now blessed with Extreme deodorant; you can read about “Extreme Investing” in online publications; there is even a mutual fund called “Synergy Extreme Canadian Equity Fund.” Extreme investing? Extreme mutual funds? Why not? It’s only bothersome if you think that “extreme” really reflects an urban youth culture, rather than corporate marketing strategy. But do you ever remember hearing a skater use that word?

The word “extreme” didn’t make it into our general parlance in an organic way-it’s faux slang courtesy of ESPN, and anyone who has paid any attention knows that there’s something very fishy about it. There is a New Yorker article about skateboarding that is authored by a writing teacher from Iowa who had no experience with skating, and even he was quick to discern that the X-Games was “a dog show for the skateboard illiterates at large.” Although the author shows a great deal of admiration for skateboarding-making a protracted and earnest comparison between skateboarding and ballet-there is no respite here from the commodification. He compulsively justifies skateboarding’s presence in the high-brow, advertising-driven space of the New Yorker with impressive sales figures “838-million dollars in 1999”! The subtitle of the article tells the whole story: “A multimillion-dollar industry that still can’t shake its outlaw image.” The subtext here is that a) skateboarders should want to be legit and shake their “outlaw image,” and b) to be a multimillion-dollar industry should mean integration and cultural acceptance. Put another way: to be profitable is to be a legitimate member of the public.

Looking back through newspaper and magazine articles about skateboarding, it seems that skateboarding was in fact illegal by virtue of being unprofitable. The first successful X-Games was in 1995, and the pre-’95 articles were typically discussions about why skateboarding needed to be banned-namely because the skaters were obstreperous punks, gang members, or petty criminals who got in people’s way in the commercial districts. After 1995, even such sage publications as the Christian Science Monitor began advancing the misunderstood-good-kid perspective, skateboarding as a healthy alternative for “at risk” youth. As the LA Times observed last year, “Skateboarding, once seen as an outlaw sport of hooligans and underachievers, is becoming downright legitimate.” Like the New Yorker essay, all of these articles go on to discuss X-Games and sales figures. These articles-before and after-were discussing the same group of people, maintaining the same culture; skateboarding was the same illegitimate, pathological activity that it had always been. The only difference was that corporations had devised a way to profit from it.

Another major turning point in the popular perception of the sport was the infamous 1998 Nike ad campaign that showed metal bars obstructing home plate on a baseball diamond, a golfer being chased off of the green by a cop. “What if all athletes were treated like skateboarders?” the copy challenges. Why are golf and baseball considered legitimate public activities while skateboarding is considered an urban pathology? (The same images could have been accompanied by the question, “What if everyone were treated like a homeless person?” Except that the homeless don’t usually have disposable income like skaters.)

I think it’s great that Nike is sponsoring skateboarders and putting money into our culture, but I don’t think that people should misunderstand their intentions. Nike ran this campaignecause of a skater demographic bulge and because skateboarders only bought shoes from companies owned by other skateboarders. If you were around in the early 90s, you’ll remember that skaters would rarely buy anything, besides music and food, that wasn’t produced by skater-owned companies. The loyalty was fierce, and Nike was not welcome. Even more troubling for a company like Nike, these skate shoes were quickly becoming a casual-wear staple in the general public. Nike was losing market share to companies like Etnies, and they understood that they had to penetrate the skateboarders’ world if they wanted to remain competitive.

They accomplished this by hiring Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the “Got Milk?” ad firm. A great writer named Thomas Frank went to an ad convention to hear a best-practices presentation on this campaign. He reports that the advertisers did not set out to decide whether the skaters’ hostility toward Nike was justified or warranted but to liquidate it. This “grassroots” campaign was crafted by a group of anthropology Ph.Ds who studied and surveyed skateboarders using ethnographies and other anthropological research methods. It’s like we’re some forgotten Pacific Rim tribe.

There are now successful market research firms that are exclusively devoted to providing information, research, news, trends, and photos of global youth ages fourteen through 30. The employees of these firms routinely describe themselves as “cool hunters” and “guerrilla marketers.” First of all, think of how militant that sounds-we’re being tracked by people who see themselves as hunters and guerrillas. What does that make us? Prey? Enemies? The job of a hunter and a guerrilla alike is to inhabit a space with their opponent without being seen. It’s surveillance. People concerned about the exploitative potential of corporate marketing should disabuse themselves of the image of the marketers peering down on us from their Madison Ave. offices: the marketers have descended into the street to provide corporations “24/7 coverage” of countercultures. All of the quoted material in this paragraph is taken from the Web site of a firm that is appropriately named “Look Look.” It’s voyeurism. It’s surveillance. I know a graphic designer who left a skateboarding magazine to work for a corporate clothing company that was anxiously trying to target the skateboarder demographic. He has told me that the design rooms of this company are filled with surveillance-style, long lens, “sniper photos” of skateboarders drifting through the city, walking down the street, living their daily lives.

The Tony Hawk Pro Skater video games are great-and they certainly make money for skaters-but there’s also something a little weird about them. To make the Tony Hawk games, Activision paid people to skate in full-body sensor suits that digitally mapped every microscopic gesture of their style. Think of having your movements digitally mapped. It’s creepy. Andrew Reynolds’ elbow actually bends like that when he skates. Using these surrogate rippers, you can challenge and explore the city from anywhere-from a sofa inside a gated community. Here, you don’t even have to go to the trouble of traveling to the pretend street of a skatepark-for that matter, you don’t have to go to the trouble of learning how to skate. It always makes me think of canned laughter on TV-you don’t even have to decide what you think is funny because TV will laugh for you!

Marketers infiltrate and mine skateboarding to extract a dark, exotic, urban authenticity. Suddenly playing video games seems as cool as skating. SUVs are as cool as skating. Online investing is as cool as skating. And it’s not limited to our culture at all. Remember the Gandhi “Think Different” Apple ads? What does Gandhi have to do with Macs? Suddenly buying a computer seems almost as noble as civil disobedience against violent imperialism and racism. IBM recently stenciled the public sidewalks of San Francisco and New York with a cryptic image-in the style of political graffiti-of a peace sign, a heart, and a penguin, which is the logo of its new operating system. On some street corners in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco, this stencil appears only inches away from others in the same style: one demanding “U.S. out of Vieques,” and one protesting the gentrification of the neighborhood. That’s the strategy-having a Pepsi machine near Tom Cruise in some movie about drag racing isn’t going to do much for the brand, but a Pepsi tag up in a sick spot looks authentic. How ridiculous would it be, in this day and age, if Pepsi came out with an ad declaring that it was the world’s most delicious, tasty cola? Pepsi’s not a cola, it’s a lifestyle. It should make you feel gritty, hip, urban, real.

But, like I said, it’s a mixed blessing. And the fact that skaters can make decent money now isn’t the only benefit. Think of how many people come to skateboarding during a boom. I know that I did. In fact, about half of the skaters I know started because of the scene in Back To The Future when Michael J. Fox (Per Welinder) shreds through the town square. These people are serious skaters, people who have devoted their lives to making the culture good. Yes, there are a lot of irritating people that you have to put up with-the fad chasers, the jocks, the ‘Bladers-at-heart-but they’ll all get weeded out soon enough, leaving a lot of committed skaters who would have never found the culture otherwise.

The image of skateboarding may have been completely mined by corporate marketing, but increased publicity does actually help spread and reproduce the destructive activity of skateboarding in towns and cities around the world. The larger consumer system may have absorbed the image of skateboarding, but at the cost of encouraging a real physical disruption of the consumer city.

The Gap is another company that eagerly employed skateboard imagery in its marketing campaigns. And the plaza of its new corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco is the site of an entertaining requital: the ledges of the Gap’s plaza are zealously guarded by private security guards and are presently being covered with skatestoppers.York with a cryptic image-in the style of political graffiti-of a peace sign, a heart, and a penguin, which is the logo of its new operating system. On some street corners in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco, this stencil appears only inches away from others in the same style: one demanding “U.S. out of Vieques,” and one protesting the gentrification of the neighborhood. That’s the strategy-having a Pepsi machine near Tom Cruise in some movie about drag racing isn’t going to do much for the brand, but a Pepsi tag up in a sick spot looks authentic. How ridiculous would it be, in this day and age, if Pepsi came out with an ad declaring that it was the world’s most delicious, tasty cola? Pepsi’s not a cola, it’s a lifestyle. It should make you feel gritty, hip, urban, real.

But, like I said, it’s a mixed blessing. And the fact that skaters can make decent money now isn’t the only benefit. Think of how many people come to skateboarding during a boom. I know that I did. In fact, about half of the skaters I know started because of the scene in Back To The Future when Michael J. Fox (Per Welinder) shreds through the town square. These people are serious skaters, people who have devoted their lives to making the culture good. Yes, there are a lot of irritating people that you have to put up with-the fad chasers, the jocks, the ‘Bladers-at-heart-but they’ll all get weeded out soon enough, leaving a lot of committed skaters who would have never found the culture otherwise.

The image of skateboarding may have been completely mined by corporate marketing, but increased publicity does actually help spread and reproduce the destructive activity of skateboarding in towns and cities around the world. The larger consumer system may have absorbed the image of skateboarding, but at the cost of encouraging a real physical disruption of the consumer city.

The Gap is another company that eagerly employed skateboard imagery in its marketing campaigns. And the plaza of its new corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco is the site of an entertaining requital: the ledges of the Gap’s plaza are zealously guarded by private security guards and are presently being covered with skatestoppers.