Thursday, June 18, 2015

Branding And The Birdman: To Advertisers Tony Hawk Is More Celebrity Than Stuntman Now, But What Does That Mean For Skateboarding?

In the days before I stumbled upon my first issue of Thrasher magazine, seeing the odd skater flying off a launch ramp or doing an invert in a soft drink commercial would whet my appetite for skateboarding while simultaneously giving me no real hint of the true flavor of the culture I yearned for. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the latest Mini Cooper commercial, featuring The Birdman himself, Tony Hawk, got me thinking about the strange looking-glass skateboarding has jumped through in the last 15 years.

If you haven’t seen it, the TV spot depicts Hawk and three of his kids in a Mini Countryman, road tripping to what Hawk senior cryptically describes as a “park”. As they drive, Hawk’s progeny spout the kind of familiar platitudes all kids cooped up in a car on a long trip inevitably make: “Are we there yet?” “Where is this park?” Etcetera. When the Hawk family finally reaches their destination, we see it is neither a skate park nor an amusement park, but an abandoned water park, complete with defunct fiberglass slides and dry concrete channels (the same park Killian Martin shreds in this vid, in fact). Hawk and the kids all bail out of their ride and proceed to roll on the abandoned structures, all thanks to the versatility of the 4 door Mini Countryman.

Oddly enough, there's not much skating in the ad, and none of it is orchestrated to make the average square camped out on their couch drop their jaw in amazement. There’s just a couple of shots of the kids rolling down fiberglass slides, and one fairly unexceptional ramp-to ramp launch by the Birdman at the very end. Instead of an “extreme” approach that focuses on Hawk’s stunt appeal, It’s a textbook celebrity based sales pitch. Ad agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners is using Hawk’s persona as a skater to put a clever twist on some old familial road trip conventions. The spot's narrative hook comes from the Hawk’s celebrity status and his role as a dad, not his high-impact skateboarding. Hawk barely needs to put urethane to the ground to make the ad work.

Madison avenue has been using thrashers to pimp everything from soft drinks to diapers since the shred stick first barged the scene, but this ad represents a radical shift from the depictions of skateboarding I was digesting back in the 80‘s and 90s. Back when I was an impressionable young demographic, mainstream advertisers always exploited skateboarding’s high-flying maneuvers and worked skating's connection to a sort of oversold California dream lifestyle so many in middle America both resented and aspired to. Skate shots were a dash of California cool thrown in to pepper up the image of a product, Quick bits of lifestyle-insinuating aerial fireworks often thrown in with no real connection to the product on display or the narrative of the ad. Throughout the 80’s and most of the 90’s not only were these flashes of thrash brief, but they were almost always totally anonymous. Skaters were never identified by name in the spots, skate company logos and trademark graphics were always painted over, and the skaters were usually dressed by the producer’s wardrobe departments, not their clothing sponsors.

This began to shift a bit in what can best be called the “extreme” era of mainstream skate exploitation. Thanks to the rise of “alternative” youth culture in the 90’s corporations started taking real notice of skateboarding and related activities. Pretty soon the word “extreme” became an ubiquitous Madison Avenue buzzword, ready made to be slapped on snack chips, candy bars, and cereal, usually with an accompanying graphic of a skateboarder, BMX rider or, (ugh) Rollerblader. The TV ads got meatier, with a little more actual skating creeping into the quick cut edits, yet they still seldom identified the riders performing all those “extreme” actions. As much as the advertisers wanted to latch onto skateboarding to sell their junk, they were usually disinterested in attaching their products to actual skateboarders. Skateboarding became more central in some advertising, but even in these “extreme” ads, skateboarding only functioned as a signifier of another overhyped, commodified “extreme” lifestyle.

Thanks to his crossover fame in the last half of the 90’s, Tony Hawk became the first skater famous enough for mainstream advertisers to actually identify by name in their ads. Thanks to things like the X-Games and his popular “Pro Skater” video game, the mainstream saw Hawk as The Greatest Skater Of All Time. Once skateboarding had its own “Michael Jordan” (at least in the eyes of the norms), having some anonymous vert jock bust a McTwist in your ad just wasn’t enough anymore. You needed TONY HAWK doing a McTwist in your ad for mass appeal.

A giant in both skateboarding and in the public perception of skating, it is no surprise that Hawk would be the first skater to transcend the barrier between stuntman and mass media celebrity. Still, even though The Birdman was paraded in front of cameras and identified by name in his 1990’s spots, the ads were still structured around his mind-blowing skating. There was very little, if any, narrative attached in these spots. Usually it was just some shots of Tony doing his thing while a narrated pitch unfolded in the background.  At the most, there might be a couple shots of the Birdman noshing pizza bagels or flexing his skills for Tony The Tiger mixed in with all the madonnas and 720’s, but it was always about putting Tony’s skating in front of the consumer and connecting it to the product. Now the skating just had its own premium brand name attached.

Which brings us to the Mini spot, an ad which displays Hawk’s complete transition, at least in the eyes of Madison Avenue, to mainstream celebrity. The ad is not about Hawk wowing consumers with stunts, it’s about who he is both personally (as a father balancing work, fun, and life) and in the public eye (as the mainstream’s anointed “greatest skateboarder in the world”). Although it’s far from a complete picture of his skating, it is a more complete (albeit constructed) picture of him as a media personality. What is isn’t about is his legendary skill on a skateboard.
Paul Rodriguez? Is he a tattoo artist? A Rapper? A Car Customizer? Wait....I see a skateboard up there at the top...

Hawk is not the only skateboarder to transcend the celebrity vs. stuntman barrier either. There’s a whole generation of kids devouring Lunchables who may not know that Oscar Meyer’s DC-decked celebrity pitchman Rob Dyrdek was once one of the most exciting skaters to ever grind a ledge. Axe Body Spray was so confident in the renown of Street League champ Paul Rodriguez that they marketed a whole line of P-Rod grooming products without so much as a picture of a switch tre on the bottles.

My inner 14 year old is ambivalent about this transition. In one sense, it is nice that skateboarders are becoming more than anonymous cut-and-paste stunt monkeys in advertising. It signifies that there is at least cursory nod of respect being shown for the amazing individuals who drive the subculture. It’s certainly nice for Hawk, whose status as a celebrity means he can still collect substantial checks even as he slides into his late 40’s.

On the other hand, in a lot of ways we’re in very much the same place we were when I was scoping Mountain Dew ads as an aspiring grom. Sure, the Mini spot treats Hawk as a marketable person with a multi-layered identity instead of an interchangeable stunt performer, but it still doesn’t tell you much about the culture or practices of skateboarding. It doesn’t show anyone that Hawk has a company called Birdhouse, or that he has a foundation that helps build skateparks around the world. It doesn’t help show a kid where to get a decent board, or how to pop an ollie. In one aspect, it is even worse than those old anonymous ad clips, since it doesn’t even dazzle the viewer with a barrage of killer maneuvers that might get them excited enough to pick up a board.

Fair enough. I’m sure Cooper is not aiming to sell Minis to 12 year olds who have somehow never seen a Street League broadcast or rubbernecked at their local public skatepark. They’re certainly not in the business of promoting skateboarding, but the question I asked myself about these ads back when I did finally snag my first copy of thrasher back in ’88 still remains: what do these sorts of things do for skateboarding besides pad the wallets of some corporation who has no real interest in the culture? Sure, its an opportunity for Joe Couch Potato to get better acquainted with a particular famous skateboarder, but does is it get them better acquainted with skateboarding? Does it matter anyway?

Either way, as their target demographic, I still think a four door mini is a pretty dumb idea, no matter what Tony Hawk thinks. Interpret that however you want Madison Avenue.

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