Skateboarders, like their human counterparts, come in all shapes/sizes/colors/music preferences and even levels of enthusiasm for soft drinks. Rockers clad in leather jackets, hip-hop kids in camouflage pants and the vaguely artsy new age crowd in high-waters all have their own section in the hammer store which makes up the collective culture of skateboarding. The market is, as the kids (or at least the ones with MBAs) say, thoroughly segmented.
That this is incredibly intriguing for capital-B Business is not a surprise: not only can you sell the same wooden toy to large and diverse groups of people by slapping a slightly different version of the same logo on it, but more importantly, you can sell loosely related lifestyle products alongside them. And that realization by marketers has led to corporations to descend on the world of skating en masse, trying to find the next Tony Hawk, Bam Margera, Ryan Sheckler or, dreaming against dreams, Rob and Big.
These things happen slowly and almost imperceptibly in cases where companies have had enough sense to leave things like art direction intact as it doesn’t make a lot of business sense to fundamentally change something that has directly led to a company’s continued success through the years. So when Rick Howard says, despite new investors, the Crailtap camp will be running the creative aspects of the company such as product development and doing more events it’s fairly easily to believe him. Still, it’s difficult not to take it as a personal affront when your favorite skate company feels like it may stop listening to themselves (and by extension, you) in favor of focus groups.
In the big picture sense of modern life and all its consumerist trappings, resisting the fatalistic dread that corporations are completely taking over something that you love is becoming increasingly hard. Creeping corporations don’t feel the same way, of course. For the most part you’re just an expression of one of those larger market segments, like “Millennials “ or “action sports” “enthusiasts” or “MTN DEW drinker”. But when people talk about authenticity, often times what that boils down to is their misconception of what something is when placed into a broad context.
And that affinity for boiling down a complex idea into something immediately comprehensible is equally tempting on both sides of the exchange. Which is how the “free spirited slightly rebellious” tagline for skateboarding blesses Ashton Kutcher as a representative of one of skateboarding’s most influential brands, Zoo York. Sometimes, like with Kutcher, it’s glaringly obvious what’s happening and who may be the, for lack of a better word, target. The former Punk’d host embodied the spirit of skateboarding, at least according to someone, and obviously gave the brand a platform to target young teens and tweens.
Using someone like Kutcher to “attract eyeballs” isn’t the end of the world, even if it does feel like a kind of invasion of our existential privacy in its own way and, of course, skaters are allowed to have outside sources of interests. In fact, the inability to distill into a single easily digestible phrase or abstract concept skaters or skating the way one can do with Coke or Pepsi can is part of what makes it fascinating to advertisers. But even the most relentlessly positive members of the community can only reasonably justify so much.
Element publicly turning their eyes to street wear enthusiasts, as opposed to the core skate consumer (their distinction) feels like a bridge too far because it fosters an eerily similar feeling to someone lying to your face. That skating is almost inextricably tied to city life (and sometimes the suburban lives of people from places where neighbors drain their pools too often,) from Paris to Barcelona to Brooklyn to San Francisco, makes the rationale that it has anything to do with outdoors life (read: camping and hiking) seem weak and disingenuous on its face. And the community more often than not reacts accordingly.
But it’s still far too easy to accuse a company of selling out simply for aiming to produce something that only a small group of skaters and a sizable chunk of “outsiders” may be into. Distinctions of “selling out” or “keeping it core” are difficult to parse, but they can be made. Sometimes it’s a matter of personal preference, and sometimes, with a company like Supreme, there appears to be a consistent consensus that even when they choose to do something that’s perceived as being outside the orbit of skateboarding, it’s still generally in the spirit of skateboarding and not crass mall fodder.
Like most relatively niche audiences, skaters mostly just want to feel like they are being focused on by the people and company to whom they’ve developed attachments without feeling like that devotion if being taken advantage of. They are usually fine as long as they follow the simple formula for skate companies when they become involved with investors or corporations: Making sure that the less fun business side of things is taken care of along with enough capital or influence to ensure that you can make a decent product is always helpful in longevity.
And the blending of the corporate and skate world will always leave you with the skating and skate companies that you’ve loved, they’ll just be marginalized and in doing so, become a fringe part of every facet of your life. If your daughter (or son or even you, because who am I to judge?) wants an Elsa duckstyle board? Disney’s got you covered. We live in a world where any and everything you care about can be appropriated by someone else for a profit, but realistically, appropriating a culture in a way that might get one little girl or boy to try out skateboarding can’t be all bad.
That’s not to say this is totally “good”, but it’s hard to cry foul when skateboarding companies the industry over and since the beginning of time have been willing to put their name or logo on anything. From backpacks and sunglasses to shoe insoles and skate wax in a shocking number of possible shapes, selling shit with their moniker on it has always been the name of the game for skateboarding. To act any differently is either naive or actively and disastrously hypocritical.
Oddly, perhaps the most singularly skateboarding thing about skateboarding, skate videos -- a gumbo of experimental art films, tour documentaries, music videos and highlight reels, created either directly by the companies or independently made -- may thrive under the new system, as they played an enormous role in larger corporations putting skateboarding on their channels. With the ability to fly skaters around the world and book celebrities or musicians with the connections they already have, it’s foreseeable that we’ll see productions that aim to leverage any commonality between skateboarding and any other asset in their possession.
Viral gold is always welcome. James Harden shaving his beard and giving the clippings to Chaz Ortiz in a Gatorade Commercial? Sign me up!
Personality has always been important in skateboarding, just like sports as a whole. The NBA has long been a marketing powerhouse, the closeness of the athletes to the crowd and the lack of equipment has been an asset in developing the personality of an athlete’s brand, making it a whole lot easier to compellingly pitch a product outside the game. Skateboarding’s unique potential of actively showcasing the product while in use is also an immense tool, equivalent of LeBron James wearing Skull Candy headphones during a playoff game.
The potential of skateboarding’s individuality and charisma will further lead to television appearances in the vain of Rob Dyrdek’s shows on MTV. The well-intentioned, if frivolous life of skaters’ is a perfect fit to sell a bunch of shit, without losing potential serious moments of sacrifice that can be played up of the solitary man who overcame adversity and succeeded when they should’ve been counted out by all accounts. Lord knows they’ve made enough bad movies about it, what’s the harm in another silly television show?
And even if it all goes to shit, nothing can take away that broken-in curb.