Donna Carpenter describes the vintage Playboy centerfold images on Burton’s “Love” snowboards as “tongue-in-cheek.” Her husband, Burton Snowboards co-founder Jake Burton Carpenter, calls the artwork on the “Primo” snowboards — hands mutilated by fireworks and scissors — “toilet humor.”
And, in a recent interview with Seven Days, the Carpenters didn’t sound at all remorseful that Vermont’s antiviolence activists have apparently missed the joke [“Flipping the Board,” November 26].
Burton may, in fact, have the last laugh — all the way to the bank. As Jake Burton Carpenter admitted, the recent media attention on the controversial boards has only fueled the public’s interest in them; sales of both boards have “well exceeded expectations,” as he put it.
That has local antiviolence groups pondering what to do next. Among the ideas being floated are more anti-Burton demonstrations, the formation of a new citizens’ group, even an anti-domestic-violence statue in downtown Burlington.
But some activists suggest it’s time to shift the focus away from Burton and examine the broader issue of violent and sexualized imagery aimed at young consumers. Indeed, most of the commentary on Burton’s controversial boards, especially in the mainstream press, has ignored the historical context of provocative graphics within the skateboard/snowboard world, where such images are neither new nor shocking.
Seth Neary is a commercial artist in Burlington who spent 10 years as a pro rider with the German snowboard company Nitro. Neary points out that far worse images have long been a part of skater culture. Burton’s self-mutilation graphics, for example, were designed by Todd Bratrud, a well-known West Coast skateboard artist. Similar drawings by Bratrud, including a baby chick being crushed by a fist and fingers being dismembered by scissors and blenders, first appeared on skateboard decks as long ago as 1998.
“Graphics are such an important part of the snowboard/skateboard world because when you walk into a shop, they’re going to talk to you,” Neary explained. “The idea is that somebody buys [a board] and they want to rip the mountain or rip the streets. It gives them an emotional response.”
Neary’s own snowboards featured a red skull with flames on it. The graphics were intended to “dip into my skater side,” he said. “That, basically, was speaking to the kid out there who’s, like, ‘I want to be aggressive and shred hard, and when I look down at my board, I want to be stoked.’”
Neary, whose clients have included Burton Snowboards, won’t comment on the Love or Primo designs. But he recalled that not too long ago, edgy and outrageous deck designs were a way for pro skaters to rebel against corporations that were trying to limit skaters’ ability to profit off their own product lines. Among the most controversial was Steve Rocco, a skater who founded World Industries, which repeatedly pushed the limits of taste by using graphic images of sex and violence. In the early 1990s, the company issued a deck that featured a parent standing behind a boy holding a smoking gun — with his dead friend splayed out before him.
Neary says that when parents organize rallies and media campaigns to denounce such imagery, the result typically backfires: Kids seek them out even more enthusiastically.
Another Burlington resident who works in the industry, and asked not to be identified, suggested that was Burton’s goal with its controversial designs.
“In this industry, you need to keep an edge and a core demographic,” he said. “And, if you don’t have the absolute core guys backing your brand, you start to lose a little bit of credibility.”
So, what are the options for people who don’t want their kids, or themselves, exposed to such imagery? Some local media experts suggest taking a page from Burton’s own playbook — targeting the industry’s core demographic of young riders.
Currently, three out of four snowboarders are young men (average age: 22), according to SnowSports Industries America, an industry trade group. But girls and young women (average age: 19) now make up one of the sport’s fastest-growing demographics, and can exercise enormous influence over what male riders find acceptable.
Elaine Young is an associate professor of marketing and e-business management at Champlain College. Young also serves (along with this reporter) on a statewide taskforce dedicated to changing media representations of sexual violence. Young said the only way companies such as Burton will eschew products and ads that objectify women and sensationalize violence is if their best customers tell them to stop.
“Nothing is going to change unless the target market understands why it’s not OK to be riding a snowboard down a mountain on the body of a naked woman,” Young said.
Although she hates the idea of putting the onus chiefly on women, Young suggested that young female riders can be more influential than their parents in changing their peers’ attitudes and buying habits. “How many of them will say, ‘I don’t like this, but I don’t care,’ versus ‘I don’t like it and I’ll never buy a Burton board again?’” she asked. “That’s the real question.”
Activists should tap into the modes of communication most popular among teens and twentysomethings, including Facebook and Twitter, Young said. And activists can tailor a message that will resonate with girls and young women by using the same micro-targeted techniques that companies use to reach a specific demographic.
Sharon Lamb is a professor of psychology at St. Michael’s College and author of the book Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes. She also chairs the state’s Changing Media Representations committee on sexual violence. Lamb is uniquely positioned to evaluate whether racy, violent sports equipment poses a unique threat to females.
She cited a February 2007 report by the American Psychological Association that demonstrated black teens exposed to sexualized rap videos had a greater tolerance of teen-dating violence. Teens who consumed such images regularly were also more likely to place a higher value on physical beauty, and were more likely to suffer from depression, eating disorders and negative self-image.
Lamb cited another study in which even short-term exposure to pornographic images made people more accepting of sexual harassment and violence against women, even when those images weren’t violent. Moreover, research from several different studies revealed that people who regularly consume sexually objectifying images are more likely to see sexual relationships as adversarial and to accept “rape myths” — that is, the notion that women invite rape by their own behavior.
Lamb emphasized that she isn’t promoting censorship, but rather more social responsibility by businesses when it comes to peddling sexualized imagery.
“In the grand scheme of things,” she said, “if we had a lot more [out there] about healthy sexuality, a little sexualization wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. But when it’s the only thing that kids are bombarded with, when they don’t get good sex-ed elsewhere, it becomes their definition of sexuality.
“It’s not just that we’re exposing kids to sex too soon,” she added. “It’s that we’re exposing them to sexualized images and it’s not good for adults, either. If we say that we don’t want billboards in Vermont, why can’t we say that we don’t want porn, too?”
For additional coverage of the Burton snowboard controversy, visit Blurt, the Seven Days staff blog.