Thalia Surf's Martin Luther King Day Sale Ad.

It’s not quite a Hitler mustache on an Obama portrait, but it’s definitely not good.


The Inertia

The best way to generate buzz around your business, product, or image – no matter the context – is to seek out controversy. It’s a sure-fire path to immediate recognition. Whether that recognition is of the productive variety or not is debatable, but it seems that a couple of Orange County surf brands recently (re)discovered the efficacy of shock tactics. As a result, we’re all learning a few public lessons along the way.

Case #1: Not the Dream MLK Imagined

Thalia Surf Shop, based in Laguna Beach, California, recently launched a sale in honor of Martin Luther King Day featuring an image of Dr. King sporting a wetsuit. In and of itself, that might not be such a big deal; however, the campaign was labeled the “Respect Sale” and offered a 20% discount on all of the outlet’s black products. Using Dr. King’s image and a holiday celebrating equality and civil progress in America to sell reduced-price black goods? Hmmmm.

I’m sure Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a proponent of good deals, but he was also an advocate of careful, unity-driven consideration. Dr. King once said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Unfortunately, Orange County isn’t exactly a hub of cultural awareness. Sincere ignorance? Maybe. In a 2009 U.S. Census, African Americans represented a whopping 2% of Orange County’s three million plus population, which partially explains the cultural ignorance responsible for the misappropriation of America’s most influential Civil Rights activist. It also renders Thalia’s shock tactic intolerable. It’s not quite a Hitler mustache on an Obama portrait, but it’s definitely not good.

Nick Cocores, the owner of Thalia Surf, seemed to realize as much when he decided to remove the advertisement from the company’s website. He also published a public apology on Thalia’s blog.

“In no way did we intend to hurt or offend anyone. For those that took offense or disrepect (sic) we truly are sorry. We took down the ad for our sale to hopefully calm the waters and in the future will be more careful in our selection of promotions. We appreciate the support from customers and patrons of Thalia Surf that know us and know that we meant no harm. Thanks.”

Case #2:  Rusty Cannibalizes Itself, Literally.

Rusty's anti-SUP ad, which it has decided to discontinue - compressed into a sequence.

Rusty's anti-SUP ad, which it has decided to discontinue - compressed into a sequence.

Just as it seemed that tensions between surfers and stand up paddlers were beginning to settle, Rusty decided to spike the punch by running an ad that features Josh Kerr decapitating a standup paddler with the fins of his surfboard.

The ad is exceptionally puzzling – namely because Rusty is literally cannibalizing its own market…murdering them, actually. Rusty manufactures a wide variety of standup paddleboards to serve (what used to be) a lot of customers. And merchants of niche products in sensitive communities don’t typically humiliate their customers to make a sale. For instance, Big & Tall Stores don’t usually call their clients obese giants. It’s just not a part of the marketing plan.

In the past week, a sixteen-page thread lamenting Rusty’s misjudgment has evolved on StandUpZone.com, which appears to host a robust and vocal community of standup paddlers. The discussion caused such a stink that, like Thalia Surf, Rusty’s ambassadors felt compelled to issue an apology. Charlie Setzler, President of Rusty Clothing offered the following statement to the standup paddle community:

“Our intent with the ad in question was to incorporate a fun, humorous tone into our marketing, and we regret that some people were offended by our attempt at humor.  In no way does (sic) any of us at Rusty condone violence of any sort – this has no place in our society. That said, we have decided to pull the ad from all publications.”

Here we see two companies pushing the envelope. And we see two companies doubling back, questioning their own judgment, and reversing course. Ultimately, they failed to successfully execute controversial marketing campaigns. Granted, they generated buzz, but a successful campaign does not apologize for itself.

It’s not that it can’t be done; it can. And it should be done. It’s just difficult to do right. It requires substantial intelligence, cultural acumen, and foresight. Consider the outrage Ricky Gervais inspired at the 2011 Golden Globe Awards. His comedy wasn’t exactly tasteful or uplifting, but he was well aware of what he was getting into, and intelligent enough to understand his impact in an atmosphere that takes itself much more seriously than those in the surf world. Or better yet, have a look at the work done by United Colors of Benetton. They’ve mastered the art of poignant, shock advertising. They understand the power of visual communication and semiotics, and they very purposefully inspire their viewers to think. They are masterful communicators, and although surfers have never been default keynote speakers, there’s no reason we can’t be. After all, we’re kings of visual communication. If nothing else, that’s what “The Sport of Kings” is.

So scrap these ads, and get back to the drawing board; take it as a learning experience. That way, next time the marketing buzz will end with congratulations, instead of apologies.

  • Scott H.

    This naively earnest windmill-tilting is as strained as it is ludicrous.
    The Thalia promo was harmless and respectful. It brought MLK to the beach, even if the execution was a trifle tone-deaf. Whipping on a tiny, family-run surf shop does a disservice to the victims of real racism everywhere. And while I’m no one’s OC apologist, consider digging deeper than the lowest-hanging cliche: the county is rife with vital, effervescent immigrant communities from Russia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Central America, ad. inf.
    The Rusty ad? Funny as hell. If you crave measured, bland campaigns, check the back of Popular Mechanics, not a surf magazine.

    • Dave F

      Methinks thou doth protest too much, Scott H. The origin of an ignorant ad has no bearing on its impotence. Whether that MLK ad came from the Girl Scouts of America, Joe’s Corner Store Meatpies, or Wal-Mart – it’s irrelevant – even if it was a well-intentioned family run surf shop. As you said, ’twas “a trifle tone deaf” despite good intentions. If there weren’t some truth to its insensitivity, these companies wouldn’t be deleting their ads and issuing public apologies. They’d be celebrating. And, really? You’re going to make a case for Vanilla County’s abundance of diversity? C’mon…

      • Scott H.

        Your Shakespearian prelude implies that I somehow have a dog in the fight. I don’t. I know no one involved. Deletion of ads isn’t always an admission of guilt. It can be a plea bargain of sorts, in the hopes of quelling the high drone of internet quimbyism.
        Re: the OC… Vanilla? Utterly. Monochrome? Mostly. A too-easy-by-thirds target for the writer akin to hip-checking a wheelchair pilot? Absolutely. But if you ever want a kick-ass banh mi or a fat pupusa, I can set you straight.

        • Dave F

          Touche, Mr. H….to an extent…you must realize that predicating an argument about “The OC’s” effervescent immigrant population on interactions with the service industry kinda reinforces the point, right? But you argue charmingly and acknowledge some important context: the ad is all the more dangerous precisely because of the monochromatic, vanilla population it addresses.

          • Scott H.

            “Predicated on interaction with the service industry?” Come hang at my house for a few days before you jump to another one of your pious, EasyBake conclusions. The service industry? You mean owner-operated eateries serving soul food from the homeland? Sure, they’d rather be sitting on their asses writing middlebrow surf commentary for no pay (like we’re both doing right about now, “Dave”) -but maybe they have lives to live and WORK to do.

            Enough digression: my through-line remains–those ads are about as dangerous as a mild patch of scabies.

          • Dave F

            I hear ya, “Scott,” and I like your analogy. As innocuous as it may appear, it seems logical to treat scabies when it creeps up instead of hoping for the best and watching it evolve into something worse. I think that’s okay. Hypersensitive? Maybe. Hygienic? Certainly. I also think our arguments are equally predictable and baseless. We’re coming from different places. You’re welcome to my house any time, too. You can quote Quixote. I’ll quote Shakespeare, and we’ll disagree with each other in a friendly way but I’ll respect your civility. Just don’t give me scabies.

          • Scott H.

            Rx for scabies: 80 milliliter bottle of topical lotion. (Not chemotherapy.)
            Rx for silly ads: A mild “Ah geez.” (Not marching orders.)

            King’s X, Dave.
            “Civility now.”

  • guest

    After reading your article it seems to me your political correctness has seemed to blind your ability to step back and assess these advertisements. First off to finish your article on the Thalia promo you wrote “It’s not quite a Hitler mustache on an Obama portrait, but it’s definitely not good.” To compare the “Respect” ad, in any sense, even just to say its not quite as bad as, Obama wearing a Hitler mustache is where the ignorance truly lies, not in the ad. There is nothing disrespectful or ignorant about the ad, in fact, the ad was named “Respect”. I don’t think one can be more straight forward on their stance toward the great Dr. King and his life’s work. It is the misinterpretation of the ad and NOT the ad itself that is ignorant and bias. Furthermore, to say that Orange County’s low African-American population is to blame for “the cultural ignorance responsible for the misappropriation of America’s most influential Civil Rights activist” is rediculous. Diversity and culture is celebrated in Orange County and although the African American population may be small, Orange County is in no way unicultural or unaware. “Cultural ignorance” is everywhere. If you go to Los Angeles are you going to find a more tolerant and educated group of people than in Orange County simply because the population is more diverse? Absolutely not. The ad was not “scincerly ignorant”, this writers misinterpretation of the ad was.

    To add a quick note on the Rusty ad. Rusty Preisendorfer is a surfer and a surfboard shaper first and foremost. The stand-up paddle board is not a new invention or concept by any stretch of the imagination. But to the California coastline, the stand-up paddle board is a new and hot trend sweeping the oh-so-deep pockets of those living by the sea. As a surfer, this is agitating. The line-up is now filled with people who don’t tolerate the rules of the breaks, who don’t try to incorporate what they are doing to what others have already started, and who don’t care about the satisfaction or safety of others in the water. It is just as frustrating when numerous surfers who are brand new to the ocean come out, get in the way and become a hazard to themselves and others. The stand-up paddle craze, however, has enabled everyone to become that hazard by taking much of the challenge out surfing (namely, the take off) and crowding the line-ups. Rusty stand-up paddleboards are a small, small portion of their sales and not the companies priority product. To compare this ad to a Big and Tall store calling their clientel ” obese giants” is, once again, ignorant. Rusty caters to the SURFER, not the stand-up paddler. Any stand-up paddler who shares waves, shows respect in the line-up, and knows the rules and atmosphere of the break is usually given the same respect back. Thats what surfing is about, as Thalia Surf Shop put it, “Respect”.

    Next time you wanna bash on the industry for being ignorant, hit the books yourself.

    • Guest Lover

      If these brands are soooo brilliant and confident in their marketing, why would they terminate their campaigns and offer public apologies after the first whiff of resistance? The answer is simple. They did something wrong. They understand that. If the people responsible for dreaming these ideas up can accept that, it shouldn’t be so difficult for you to accept it either.

      • guest

        Unfortunately enough it’s not so black and white anymore. A public apology ensures the masses that the ads WEREN’T meant to be offensive. No comment on the side of the advertisers leaves interpretation, unforuntately, up to the media, whose sole objective is to make a story and turn heads. No one bats an eyelash to the headline “Local surf shop hoists funny ad to promote MLK Day Sale”. But ratings soar and people talk when they hear “Surf Shop releases ignorant and disrespectful ad at Dr. King”. If everyone disected these ads themselves, there would be no issue. But sadly, public opinion rests solely in the hands of the media now.

        • GuestLover

          That logic doesn’t follow. If you intentionally create a controversial advertisement, then you understand that public perception – including media reactions – will cause it to be successful. It’s hypocritical to participate in and attempt to exploit a system that you denounce after you experience undesirable results.

          • guest

            These companies surely did not intend for these ads to raise as big a stir as they did. The reasoning behind that is because these ads have been severly blown out of proportion. When a company creates a controversial ad with the intent of raising a stir, they are far more prepared to respond to the ensuing cries of celebration and outrage. When a company creates an ad aimed simply to be funny or ruffle a few feathers, being prepared for a situation such as what has occured is not in the agenda. I can be sure that neither the creators of the Rusty ad or the Thalia ad imagined that such harmless ads would be blown into the spotlight in such a fashion. An apology is not hypocritical in this sense. An apology for either of these ads shows that these companies wanted to share what they thought was funny and in no way meant to cause problems. These are not intentionally controversial ads. These are ads thrown into controversy by the media. If you want to see a genuinely controversial ad, look at Anti-Tobacco ads, PETA ads, numerous high fashion ads, such as those put out by Dolce and Gabbana, and GUESS?. These are ads designed to cause a stir and designed to be thrust into the spotlight. No Anti-Tobacco advertisers will ever apologize for an ad depicting children smoking. No PETA executive will state a public apology for numerous nude ads for their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. And as for the high fashion world? Sex sells, and they’ll stand to that to the death, and people will still buy. THOSE are controversial ads. These are ads that are blown out of proportion by those who look too deep and have too much time to spare.

          • Guest Lover

            Guest, you’re not a bad person for supporting (making?) that ad. The hypocrisy lies not in the fact that Thalia issued a thoughtful apology – but in the fact that you’re scapegoating a system that you intended to use as a tool. It just wasn’t very well thought out. It’s okay. We’re all learning as we go, and like you said, controversial promotions can be executed effectively…these two just were not. Better luck next time…

    • Jbw4600

      It is funny you said that “any stand-up who shares who shares waves, shows respect in the line up….. is usually given the sane respect back”, because I am a bodyboarder and I feel that everyone deserves respect. This kind of ad promotes antagonism between surfers of all types (long, short, kayak, canoe, matt, bodysurfer, bodyboarder etc). Especially when it shows someone’s head being cut off. I get cut off just because I am on a bodyboard. Surfing is supposed to be a peaceful way of being part of the ocean not a macho contest of who is the strongest and badest. Most surfers are cool, but about 10 -20 percent are total asses. And this type of ad only makes it worse. How would you feel if they made an add showing bodyboarder decapitating a short boarder?

      • guest

        10-20 percent of surfers are total douchebags, I can’t argue that point. Respect goes both ways with most people, regardless of situations. If you get cut off for riding a bodyboard consistantly, then either you’re not showing the proper respect, or, if you are, you’re just at a spot full of dicks. Either deal with it, move to a different spot, or start surfing. I’ve shared waves with bodyboarders and SUP’s because they showed respect, and I’ve cut them off for being assholes. It goes both ways. And as far as surfing being a peaceful part of the ocean? It’s far from. Look through surfings past and present, you’ll find a far different story.

      • lasgavs41

        @JBw4600 “How would you feel if they made an add showing bodyboarder decapitating a short boarder?”

        We all know that would never happen silly!

        http://www.vimeo.com/18927345

    • stu

      Using MLK to sell trunks on MLK day is akin to using pictures of the burning twin towers to promote a 4th of July sale (I can just see it – “buy American – the guy who jumped from the 85th floor would”). It’s classless and commercializes a very important day or remembrance to a large segment of the US population. The fact that the intentions were not harmful is irrelevant.

      As for Rusty, I understood that Rusty surfboards and Rusty Clothing are not one in the same anymore (with Rusty Surfboards being the only one actually controlled by Rusty now). Is this true? If so, the issue would seem moot…

    • Stanley Moran

      I do shortboards and in the shortboard world the word respect is a joke. It is all about who is stronger in the lineup. With the advent of the SUP, the shortboards sheriffs feel threatened of course, specially if they see a young reckless SUP coming to dominate the lineup. 

  • Conscious Fyah Gone Blaze

    Ricky Gervais’ performance spiced up what would otherwise be a hollywood circle-jerk. He advertised his ability to tell actors the truth on an official hollywood award show broadcasted to millions around the world. It was a defining moment in his career and will most definitely grow his fan base. And the best part is that Mr. Gervais was paid to do what he did.

    Mr. Gervais deserves a spot in the advertising hall of fame.

    The MLK Ad was great in my opinion. That surf shop would have my patronage. I’m full on racist.

    As for Rusty, our legal system (In the USA, a real country) mandates that a company has the same legal rights as a human being. Rusty should embrace our legal systems mandate and not cannibalize itself. You don’t sell a SUP and then buy advertising space to discriminate on the SUPs! You either sell out and produce the damn things, or you don’t.

    Thanks to the shapers who didn’t sell out. You set yourself apart.

    Great article. The inertia will be getting the money I save on subscriptions.

    And another note about the British. They tend to inject truth in uncomfortable situations. If Ricky Gervais is exhibit one, I’d like to enter exhibit two on this theory.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bypLwI5AQvY

  • http://www.surfysurfy.net/ JP

    ” tensions between surfers and stand up paddlers were beginning to settle”

    Maybe, I know a few surfers who are seriously going to snap soon after one more drop in.

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