Ignore the signs: Don't Be Prey
Editor’s Note: Eleanor Sheehan has real journalistic credentials. Like, she’s actually a writer — where as a lot of us, well, we’re surfers. But Eleanor has degrees, experience, knowledge, power and humor and she knows how to wield them with her keyboard. She could be your best friend or your worst enemy at a dinner party depending not on your politics, but on your ethics, your kindness or your taste in cheese. She knows things. Sordid, depraved, secret, slimy things about our modern society — but she’s also an elegant woman, one who is just as happy to saunter through opening night at the ballet as she is to trudge through a battlefield or take the overnight bus alone through Chile for some backpacking. She’s living, and whether she’s telling you a joke, or relaying hard-hitting news, her words carry weight and we’d all be wise to follow along, laugh with her, learn with her and even disagree with her, but do pay very close attention to her, because chances are she knows something you don’t.—Travis
Imagine you’re an extraterrestrial organism that has just crash landed smack dab in the middle of the 405 at 5:00 PM on a summer Friday. You’re understandably shaken from the rough entry, but you’re also seized by the number of people on this asphalt river. Because you’re an alien with superior technological and intellectual capability, you’re able to instantly understand earthly languages. You begin to read the contextless words and phrases that float above this roadway: “ACCIDENT? WE CAN HELP.” “DON’T DROP THE SOAP. 1-800-NO CUFFS” “GET HIGHER WITH US.” “NEW LEWK, WHO DIS?” “CHEAP DENTAL IMPLANTS HERE.” “LIFE’S A MURAL, PAINT IT.” “DO IT FOR THE GRAM.” “FEEL GOOD: INSIDE AND OUT."
Suddenly your green skin feels slimy and ugly; you contemplate calling that hotline to book a chemical facelift, or maybe fillers because they seem cheaper. You realize that you will never survive here without a fashionable wardrobe to hide your scales. You want to practice more self-care. Perhaps, you calculate, a personal injury lawyer will win your case against all the negligent drivers who failed to move out of your way during your descent and you’ll be able to use that money to buy a new body. Oh, that svelte electric vehicle looks very nice, you want that as well. Suddenly, too, you’re overcome with the desire to radio all of your alien friends and tell them how great it is here on earth—how peaceful and full of opportunity. You forget you’re in a spacecraft and become enraged when a passing driver gives you the middle finger for blocking traffic. You want to eat that cheeseburger at Exit 124, but you’re concerned it will go straight to your alien hips. You see that Sotheby’s is selling a $30 million home in Beverly Hills and think: “If I work hard enough, I could own that one day.”
All at once you are human. One of us oxygen breathers: self-conscious and brutally self-effacing. A walking contradiction with unquenchable urges to possess. A living billboard.
There’s a line in Marshall McLuhan’s “Advertising as a Magical Institution” that I’ve never been able to shake. It goes something like this: “if there is any virus for the human mind that is contained in advertising, immunity can always be purchased for the cost of critical analysis.”
When I first read this essay, I was struck by the simple solution it proffered. How much is this critical analysis? (Actually very expensive.) Can it be scaled? (Of course not.) Now, many years and Instagram scrolls later, I remember this particular line because of its glaring fallacy.
I’m not the first person to point out that advertising’s potency derives from its ability to injure our extremely fragile egos. And I’m certainly not cynical enough to believe that many people, if not most people, are ignorant of this psychological coercion. The magic of advertising isn’t that it works, but that it works even when we’re aware of the trick. It’s effective even when we don’t want it to be effective. I don’t need a new comforter, but the other day I saw a targeted ad hocking a breathable, organically manufactured, cloud duvet and now I’m thinking twice about how much I sweat at night. Maybe I do need this. Maybe my Ikea comforter is leaking micro plastics into my sweat-bathed skin and oh my god I’ve been conned, again. However anti, academic, punk, or reclusive you think you are, there’s an ad out there that will find you and it will fool you —even as you know what’s happening.
For reasons I can’t quite place, summer seems to be the time of year when advertising hits a fever pitch. Somehow even more so than Christmas. If you’re going to the beach or the river or the lake this summer, you’re going to need a new cooler. A new bathing suit bought from a recognizable brand. A new, slimmer body to put in that bathing suit. A new board to impress your friends whom you haven’t seen since school ended. A new grill. A new car. A new house. You need it.
Immunity to advertising unfortunately can’t be attained through cognizance, but it can be achieved through a radical reassessment of our needs—and what it means to need. In 1929, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and advertising savant, Edward Bernays, pulled off a rouse that continues to operate at present. He convinced women that smoking cigarettes (“Torches of Freedom”) was a form of patriarchal protest—to prove you’re a feminist, you need a cigarette. This campaign, and really all subsequent advertising campaigns, magnificently altered language: it turned “want” into “need” and we’ve never turned back.
Perhaps you’re wondering why you’re reading this stranger’s entirely-unrelated-to-surfing broadside on advertising (truthfully, I would be shocked if more than a handful of people actually made it this far). Allow me to close by painting another portrait: Saturday morning at the Cliff’s parking lot in Huntington Beach. It’s a hectic fucking mess because Surfline labeled the swell “Fair to Good.” Everyone and their cousin seems to be trying to park. You drive past at least a dozen people unloading or reloading their Volkswagen surf vans. They’re wearing strange, hooded towel ponchos. Small strips of astroturf are neatly placed under the trunks of several cars. A man showers himself with what looks like the latest Raytheon hardware. There are wetsuits of all flavors and every level of Go Pro model. Someone opens a kombucha with Mick Fanning’s (gross) bottle-opening flip flops. A drone hums above. Specialized board racks line the traffic channel. Assessing this scene, your gear might start to feel woefully inadequate. But before you convince yourself of the dressing towel’s practicality, you’re confronted with a disquieting query: When did purchasing power subsume our ability to have fun?
To which I say: Mr. Bernays put this train in motion, but you can get off at anytime. You’re a surfer, goddamnit! Is this not, in the words of Jack London, “a royal sport for the natural kings of the earth”? You don’t need anything but some shaped polyurethane and a wave! You definitely don’t need a glorified changing towel! Wear that wetsuit until it has a hole in it! You can nourish your spirit without a single-use face mask! Planned obsolescence is the ultimate scam! No one will notice if you’ve been in the same clothes for the last year or even the last decade! Reclaim your desires! Don’t be prey.—Eleanor Sheehan
I could paint a similar picture of gym parking lot, but this is a newsletter for surfers.