Illustration by Nanda Ormond.

The Short History Of Surfers Doing TV Commercials


Surfing turns up an awful lot in ads. Why? Because, to the vast non-surfing public, surfing represents an idealised version of living, and advertising is intrinsically about selling the myth of a pain-free existence. As the Dread Pirate Roberts said to Buttercup, “Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

It doesn’t take much of a stab to puncture the myth-making. If you’re prepared to believe that boozing, eating grossly unhealthy food and bingeing on credit cards might all be consistent with a surfing lifestyle, well, then you deserve the clogged arteries and the debt.

Surfing in advertising goes back as far as mass media itself, but the best place to start is Bruce Brown’s homespun narration of a 1966 Coke ad. Coke’s synonymous with the aloha spirit, obviously: “Coca Cola is the most popular drink in the Islands because of how it tastes when you come in from the waves.” Coke also got their mitts on George Greenough’s in-the-barrel footage from Crystal Voyager and set it to a trippy soundtrack for another ad in 1975. To be fair, it kinda works.

By the mid-1980s, Singo’s ocker genius had laid its mangled vowels over everything, surfing included. MR was credible, likeable and bankable, so he spruiked for KFC and then Tooheys. The Mojo jingle for the Tooheys ad is as unorthodox as MR’s forehand (“A proud Novocastrian grin/ the first champ to use the twinfin”) and it’s worth watching just for MR’s eyebrow work. In the KFC ad, the champ waves a fried drumstick at the camera to make the dubious point that he and the Colonel have both succeeded in pursuing their “own special style”. Which is true, only MR’s didn’t involve trans fats and MSG.

In the early 90s Coke (again) took an all-star cast of bright young things including Stu Bedford-Brown, Luke Egan, Jodie Cooper and a very young Kye Fitz to Nias, where they coined the immortal line “Can you tell us where the waves are?” (cue wavy hand gesture). The visuals were stunning: something you can’t say of Kelly Slater’s ad for Apple in 2002. It’s breathtakingly dull.
In 1999, Guinness released their “Surfer” ad, directed by Jonathon Glazer. If you can use surfing to sell fried chicken, there’s no reason you can’t use it to sell stout. Especially when the concept is as off-the-planet weird as this one. High camp and perched on a knife-edge between drama and open ridicule, it’s won countless awards and was way ahead of its time.

Credit cards attract interest but their ads frequently don’t. Laird made an ad for AMEX: “The only thing I can think of that’s crazier than riding big waves is living in the city and working in an office,” he says. Nevermind that in order to pay the damn thing off, that’s precisely what most of us have to do. Meanwhile, Kolohe Andino orders pizza in the barrel by phone for VISA – supposedly whacky fun but the whole thing smacks of a dystopian future where the line-up is crammed with petrol-driven hardware and people buy crap on their phones while they surf and nobody collects the bloody pizza boxes.

But it’s not all bad. The very definition of self-assurance has to be putting your arse in an ad for a Chanel men’s fragrance, as Danny Fuller did. The 2012 campaign, directed in smoky black and white by Kathryn Bigelow (from Hurt Locker to vanity cabinet? Although, she did direct Point Break I suppose) is ridiculous, but to their credit, the makers have tried to film what looks like one authentic wave, rather than the usual Frankenstinian mash-up of poorly-connected edits. And props to Danny for doing Keanu better than Keanu does.

Samsung’s new ad to promote the World Superheroes League is just…nice. Gorgeous visuals, uplifting message about individuality and guts and, dammit, I’m looking for cynicism here and coming up empty.

Maybe advertising reveals our deeper selves. Consider the Andy Irons Billabong commercial, and his words “I have a lot of inner demons, and if I didn’t have surfing to get those out of my system, I would self-destruct…” Right there, cutting through the bullshit and the background noise, we might’ve seen a glimpse of the unbearable truth.

Jock Serong