Surf iconography isn’t going anywhere. Considering how few people actually participate in the activity, it’s astounding how flexible the image is. When one of my professors sent me a screen-shot of the Delta Airlines website I was encouraged to think about an interesting use of surfing: marketing and advertising.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Christopher Schaberg, author of “The Textual Life of Airports” and “Checking Out/Checking In,” a project featuring his work and that of Dr. Mark Yakitch.
The image is supposed to encourage me to book a trip, ideally to some beachfront hotel. But the traveller doesn’t go to Delta to find a destination. The goal is to obtain a boarding pass. With most of the world’s civilization locked in inland valleys between surfable coasts, the odds are pretty slim that most travelers will be surfing.
In fact, the emphasis of this screenshot, and the point of the image, is to sell the AmEx credit card with the frequent flyer package. How do two surfers slogging ashore in the sunset achieve this goal? It would be more interesting to view the surfer in the ocean, paddling to catch a double-overhead wave. Or at least to see these two guys walk into the ocean as the swell builds.
Forget it. Placid sea. Content surfers. Setting sun.
How do we read the photo in relation to the credit card (itself a part of the photo, super-imposed but flattened into a oneness on the screen)? The card is meant to signify the same notion of completion that we ascribe to the surfers stepping out from the ocean. The surfer’s boards point to the credit card. They walk towards it. By spending with AmEx, we now are saving little by little to afford the trip we desire. But like surfer’s walking away from the ocean, perhaps we are moving in the wrong direction.
Cars and Surf Culture
Maybe it’s more natural than I assumed to connect travel with surfing. The Woody is as big a surf icon as the board itself in Southern California. After all, how could a person get a ten-foot board to the beach without a car? Moving from air to land, there is plenty of visual culture linking the two.
This advertisement for the Triumph Spitfire Mk2 ascribes all the sexiness, power and fluidity of surfing and surf culture to the car.
In this ad by Jeep the car and the board become synonymous.
The above ads don’t suggest the same connection between surfing and cars. In the Spitfire ad the car embodies surf culture; while in the Jeep ad the vehicle enables the possibility of “Fun.” The car facilitates the journey. The next ad will perhaps take a little more unpacking.
This ad is a partnership between MiniCooper and Malamalama Board Shorts. The catch: Malamalama board shorts don’t exist
That’s right. Mini-cooper invented a board-shorts company and purchased additional ad-space to produce this inarguably eye-catching ad. Like the Delta photo the Malamalama ad features the surfers looking away from the beach, while their friend peers over the edge of the advertisement construct to the adjacent wall. Like the AmEx frequent flyer card, the eye is drawn to the MiniCooper. In this case, the car seems to be driving off with the surfer’s board. Bummer.
And if we could look straight on at the Mini-Cooper ad, it would look a lot like the Jeep ad.
Look back at the Malamalama ad and it’s slogan:
CUT FOR THE SURFING GENERATION
Just because Malamalama is a fake company does not mean that this is a poorly constructed board shorts ad. The same sex appeal, power and edginess of the Spitfire is embodied in the line of surfers on the beach. The slogan is designed to simultaneously make the wearer feel unique and part of a larger movement.
And though Malamalama is a fake company, it’s a real word.
It’s Hawaiian, meaning: Light of knowledge; clarity of thinking or explanation; shining, clear.
The Other Side of Surf
I want to finish this post by looking at the flip-side of surf imagery in contemporary advertisements. These two need little introduction, but would be aided by plenty of explanation.
Part of Pepsi’s “Dare for More” ad campaign.
It’s hard not to appreciate the brilliance and beauty that advertisements are capable of. In this case Pepsi has impregnated its entirely abstract logo with all the meanings of epic surf and stormy red skies. The brand loses nothing, and gains everything. Just looking at this photo gives me that same feeling in my skull that I get when I drop in on a wave I can’t handle and realize I’m going to make it.
That same power is evoked in an ad campaign by Guinness:
Part of Guinness’s “Good Things Come to Those Who…” Campaign.
It’s not possible to see the conflict by looking at one advertisement, but when the whole array of surf iconography is analyzed, the duality of surfing’s representation is apparent. Intense power and Taoist passivity come together in the sport but cannot be represented simultaneously in the media. It doesn’t sell.
Look at the surf movie posters of the sixties and seventies and two motifs easily stand out: One or two surfers walking toward the ocean; or a lone empty wave curling on itself, devoid of an inhabitant. This is just one representation of the surfing mythos. Surfers are at once in awe of nature while simultaneously attuned to it.
Movie Poster for Endless Summer (1966)
The Morning of the Earth Poster, (1972)
This image is less prevalent in modern surf films (though still representing a significant percentage). A recent article in Australia’s Surfing Life explores what could be a pretty respectable explanation for the decline of this trend. Matt Miller’s piece, Surf Forecasting: A Gift or A Curse? explores the introduction of this new web technology, weighing its pro’s and cons:
“The rise and rise of internet surf forecasting websites…[has] brought simple and easy-to-read forecasting to the masses. Now everyone is scoring the best waves, we all know when the next swell’s coming and what day the wind’s swinging offshore. But is that necessarily a good thing?”
Miller goes on to compare surf forecasting to farmers utilization of technology to better plan for their crops. Surfers have used the technology to plan surf competitions with pinpoint accuracy based on conditions. But at the same time, Miller wonders if the new trend has resulted in the overcrowding of once coveted surf spots.
Take this example of a swell he and his friend had tracked in a specific location and flew out to catch:
“We got to Lakey’s two days before the swell was predicted and the whole place was deserted. The next day there were 40 surfers in the water by lunchtime. Every one of them using the same internet surf forecasting sites as us. Everyone is now a weather expert.”
There are practical reasons to want to limit the number of people out on the water. Crowding in the line-up means less opportunity to surf. Delicate locations become damaged, suffering the wear of hundreds of people swarming en masse for short periods of time. Many of the world’s best waves are outside of city limits, with little resources for upkeep or cleanup efforts.
But then there’s the deeper threat—the idea that shakes the surfer’s psyche. The search for the perfect wave is over. The Endless Summer is cooling down. There is no more sitting, waiting, wishing and praying that you are in the right spot at the right time.
The surfer can take a place in the American pantheon alongside the cowboy and the transcendental poet.
Not quite the same vibe…
Bob Burns only has to turn right or left, and see the hordes waiting for the set to come in, kicking their legs in their Rip Curl suits, to know that his coveted locale has already gone viral. Miller began his essay with an anecdote about his father:
“My old mans mate, Jonesy, a renowned sea dog and synoptic guru, always had a huge advantage by putting himself in the right place on the right day, constantly one step ahead of the crowds. The internet has changed that forever.”
In this case I’m only talking about surf movies in the documentary/travel-logue sense. Not so much about films like “Gidget” or “Blue Crush,” about which there is enough to say, though in a different vein of thought.