The Inertia Founder
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, 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.


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