Nick Carroll On: You, Surfing, Retirement & Death

19 Jun 2017 19 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

COASTALWATCH | FEATURE

Surfing? Retirement? Death???

We’re addicted to youth, but ad agencies know better.

Sunday, being Saturday in the USA, was International Surfing Day! And thus, like quite a few other crew, I awoke to find myself being told by various websites and automated email services to “#gosurf”.

I love to #gosurf, but man, I hate being told to #gosurf…so I spat in my own face and spent the morning reading the Sunday papers instead.

What could possibly go wrong, you would think. And indeed the Sunday papers were doing exactly what you want them to do, which is send you back to sleep as quickly as possible — until I got to the second half of Sunday Life, the Sun-Herald’s colour magazine, and had a very weird moment indeed. For there, back to back, were two ads using surfing as a pitch assist — to pensioners.

One, featuring a stoked-looking older woman, was for a superannuation fund pitching you on managing your retirement. The other, featuring a stoked-looking older man, was for a charity pitching you on your “legacy”: suggesting you remember the charity in your will, so it gets some money when you, well, die.

Surfing? Retirement? Death??

This is not coincidental. It’s a revealing window into how Australia’s advertising industry now sees surfing. And man, it is a long way from how the surf culture would like itself to be seen.

I guess one reason these ads tweaked me was because lately, thanks to book research, I’ve been jammed up against a very different time — the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the days when pro surfing climbed out of the primeval ooze and began looking around for sponsorship.

The corporations who came sniffing around mostly didn’t know shit about surfing. But their ad agencies and marketing people swiftly remedied that.

Smirnoff, who became the biggest deal in the game for a few bright years in Hawaii in the ‘70s, commissioned a report from their agency. The report makes fascinating reading. “Why surfing?” it asked, then answered itself. Surfers, it said, were social pioneers, world-changers: “They’re the seekers, the style setters, the young ones who will lead us into the future.”

In Australia, the first Bells pro event in 1973 was sponsored by Amco Jeans, a denim label whose advertising locked directly on to the cool surfer teen-rebel look. Their print models looked amazingly like the teen blond surfers in the ads for the pimple cream Clearasil: “I got pimples, but I still got Jimmy Peterson.” Christ on a bike. Anyway. When the event promotor Graham Cassidy was approached by Coca-Cola Bottlers later in ’73, he discovered what Coke wanted and pitched them back harder: Coke could be in on the ground floor with a young sport, unpredictable and brilliant, and full of blue sky. And they ate it up.

Across the board, the pitch was clearer than Clearasil. Surfing=young=cool=adventure=sexy=dangerous=you-wish-you-were-one.

Surfing’s always loved that idea of itself. It was just so damn appealing, and at the time, it was pretty much true. As a result, this is an industry hopelessly addicted to Youth; it’s very uncomfortable with the idea that a good part of the surf culture is now populated by people who can’t remember where they left their car keys. Boardmakers know it; everyone else wishes it’d just go away.

But while youth-based surf mags shut their doors and surf garment sales stall out on the back of vaguely awkward ‘70s fashion re-treads, mainstream ad agencies see the whole thing very differently. They’re not fooling themselves about the numbers here. They’ve seen the research, both public and private, that shows the sport’s age range has spread far beyond the young and dangerous demographic; that in fact right now in Australia, there’s more surfers over 35 than under, and more surfers over 50 than under 15.

And those older people, they’re not just surfing — they’ve got Money.

Which almost certainly means we’re gonna see more of the things I saw in the Sunday Life supplement. What’s next? Surfing funerals? Wetsuit-safe incontinence pads? State government ads for age-mandated driving tests, featuring hearty old folks in Kombis doing successful reverse parks at Wategos?

Like I know the WSL doesn’t have a huge array of financial backers at present…but do you reckon they’d partner up with, say, Viagra?

Hell, I’m old. Maybe that’d make me wanna #gosurf.


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