The X-Treme Files

Why today's fringe culture is tomorrow's cute ad campaign--and how the cutting edge bites back
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the March 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

Chad DiNenna won't say the word. It's as if someone were standing by with a bar of Safeguard, ready to wash out his mouth. "We, uh, don't like to use that word around here," says DiNenna, 28, co-founder of Nixon Watches, an action-sports-oriented watch company in Encinitas, California.

What word, Chad?
"It's kind of a bad word to us . . . ." Heavy pause.
You mean, "extreme?"
"Yeah," DiNenna sighs.

But, Chad, we plead. Isn't Nixon's customer base precisely the one marketers mean when they use the word "extreme?" These are young, hip, hyperkinetic surfers and snowboarders. They're lifestyle icons, trendsetters. Why, they're so extreme, we'd even call them X-treme.

But not DiNenna: "My partner [Andy Laats, 32,] always says, `If you had a bar and called it Winners, there'd be no one but losers inside.' " Apparently by the same token, true extremists aren't enthralled by X-Games T-shirts and Boston Market Extreme Carver sandwiches.

Meanwhile, mainstream consumers who are supposed to delight in images of street-luging, bungee-jumping, sky-surfing daredevils in ads aren't necessarily trying these antics themselves. "I'm sure less than 5 percent of the population has ever participated in any of these activities," says marketing expert Susan Mitchell, author of American Generations: Who They Are, How They Live, What They Think (New Strategist, $79.95, 607-273-0913). Ditto for other stereotypical trappings of Generation X-cess: full-body tattoos, illegal drug use, blue lipstick. "It's an image," explains Mitchell. "The real Generation X is getting married and raising families."

Freelance writer Gayle Sato Stodder (, co-author of Entrepreneur Magazine's Young Millionaires (Entrepreneur Media Inc., $14.95,, is still trying to become a slacker.

Tuned In

Welcome to the fin de siècle, where anything over-the-top is susceptible to overplay--and where the cutting edge can whip around like a chainsaw on the loose. It's a world where your mother's favorite nail polish company makes a line of blues and greens, and your 2-year-old niece rips around in her own motorized "X-treme Machine." "I recently worked on a middle-aged man, and his kids were telling him not to do it," laughs tattoo artist Karen Slafter, 32, co-owner of Incredible Ink in Austin, Texas.

If the current fringe fever seems a little far-out--or at least far-reaching--it's not your imagination. "Young people have always been interested in living at the edge. It's a time in life when people are experimenting, when they don't know any boundaries," observes James Twitchell, professor of English at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and author of Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism (Columbia University Press, $19.99, 212-666-1000). "But in the '50s and [early] '60s, for example, [such forays into the fringe] were pretty much hidden. Nobody really cared."

Young people did their thing while the culture at large went about its business: There was the establishment and the anti-establishment. Today, Twitchell notes, the ethics of extreme and excess have become guiding forces in the entire culture. "[Fringe] culture is the center of fashion, the center of music--it's everywhere," he says.

Why? In part, it's because shock imagery makes memorable advertising. As the media universe proliferates, it becomes harder and harder for marketers to grab attention. Extreme images break through the clutter.

But Twitchell also notes that marketers haven't simply amplified their techniques--they've also switched their focus. "The [adolescent and young adult] audience which had been [marginalized] is now of great interest to advertisers," Twitchell says. "Advertisers have realized they don't want to reach the person who's already consuming; they want the person who hasn't yet developed a brand loyalty."

As advertisers--and the corresponding media--try to reach out to young audiences, things that once might have been considered bizarre, kooky, shocking or profane are now beamed into American homes with all the wholesome legitimacy of mainstream culture. It's enough to turn your grandmother's hair purple . . . or any other semi-permanent color of her choice.

Core Or Middle?

However, uh, thrilling it is to have your counterculture lifestyle validated by the mainstream, that thrill is certainly mitigated by simple exhaustion. Suppose you've gone to the considerable trouble of creating a line of nail polish and lipsticks in "alternative" colors--as Anna and Sarah Levinson (ages 22 and 19, respectively) of Ripe Inc. in Los Angeles have done. Just three years later, competitors both large and small are trampling all over your niche, rendering your pastel blues and gunmetal greys practically pedestrian. How do you respond?

By innovating at whiplash speed, of course. "We have to be much more phenomenal today than we were three years ago," says Anna. "Just the fact that a color isn't part of the traditional [lipstick and nail polish] palette isn't enough." What does make the cut? For nail polish, it's iridescent shades to wear alone or on top of other colors, a matte finish that gives metallics and cremes new polish, and fashion colors with a twist: "We never look at another company's colors and say `We've got to do that,' " Anna explains. "We'll take a color that's out there and make it our own. We always ask `How can we make this color better?'"

The Levinsons appreciate the fact that the mainstream popularity of "alternative" cosmetics has expanded the market for Ripe's goods. But they also acknowledge that it's made fast work of what was once the newest thing on the block. "The normal green [nail polish] isn't cutting it anymore," Anna says without irony.

Indeed, mainstream acceptance can make the cutting edge seem, well, dull. It's not just that your adolescent impulses toward rebellion are quashed. It's that the mainstream tends to sanitize the "alternative" until it's little more than a gimmick.

Derek Chung, 29, a veteran of San Francisco's rave scene and co-founder of Late Train, a Web site devoted to local late-night culture, recognizes what he calls the "style and some of the symbols" of alternative culture in mainstream marketing. "Advertising has used some of the music and visual design from rave culture," Chung notes, "but of course, ideas about independent community, decriminalization of drugs, civil liberties, and the breaking down of personal and social barriers are not included."

Of course not. Mainstream companies can't alienate people by presenting alternative viewpoints that are actually alternative. And, conversely, companies that want to keep their edge sometimes have to keep their businesses from veering too close to the middle. DiNenna and Laats, for example, have decided to sell their watches only in what they call "specialty" surf, skate and snowboard shops--venues that might reach a limited market, but in which Nixon's authenticity actually means something.

The Alternative Scene

The relationship between the leading edge and the bulging middle is uneasy at best. Yet, it may also be a necessary one. If your entrepreneurial goal is to reach a wide market--but your entrepreneurial resources dictate a modest start--homing in on a (potentially alternative) niche may be your best shot. If your demographic allegiance is to the so-called Speed Generation, so much the smarter.

Similarly, entrepreneurs with an edgy perspective don't have to restrict themselves to a small circle of like-minded clients. Tattoo artist Slafter, for example, has won a reputation for innovative, artistic work that makes her popular with the local cognoscenti. But she's also known for working well with the less-than-bold.

"A lot of young girls don't want to go to some big biker guy and expose themselves [in order to get a tattoo]," Slafter explains. "And the pain factor is important to people, too--you don't have to murder them to give them a tattoo." While some in the body art industry are becoming increasingly outrageous--surgically implanting items like BB's under their clients' skin--Slafter sees herself going in the other direction: "We have a nice, comfortable place, with faux finishes on the walls that the artists did themselves and a small art gallery where we feature local work."

Walking the line between hip and hapless takes some maneuvering--and you don't always know which way to lean. When the principals at San Clemente, California-based World Oceans Media--publishers of Launch Wakeboard, Pit Bodyboard and Wave Action Surf magazines--decided to reorganize and launch their own Web site, they chose the URL and changed the company name to e-X Inc. Co-founder Tracy Mikulec, 34, admits to some trepidation about associating the company with the "E-word."

"The word `extreme' does tend to be overused by the mainstream," Mikulec says, "but our main goal is to reach as many people as possible--and the fact is, a lot of people know what `extreme' is."

More important, says Mikulec, who founded the business with Jake Knight, 31, is the company's ability to walk the walk--to stay in touch with a demographic that isn't served by more polished, upscale publications. "We're not a big publishing group targeting wealthy, literary people who happen to surf on weekends," Mikulec says. "We're in the [surf] shops, not on newsstands where the mainstream is looking for magazines. Most of our submissions are freelanced, so we get all the young talent to put their own spin on things. We're understaffed, so we do everything ourselves. We get a raw product that doesn't have all the checks and balances associated with bigger publications--and that's good. Being loose has resulted in at least a couple of disasters, but overall, I think it works to our advantage."

It's Up To You

In the end, Mikulec's observation may be the keenest of all. Whether your intention is to go mainstream or swim upstream, you need quick moves and the attention span of a gnat. You also need to know this: Staying ahead of the curve isn't a function of reading reports, performing research or co-opting someone else's groove.

It's about being in it--having the artistic vision of Slafter or the playful genius of the Levinsons or the "loose" flexibility of e-X or the dogged rebelliousness of DiNenna. If you're reading this story to find out what the latest thing is and how to plug it into your business, consider yourself done. On the other hand, if you have something to say--and the nerve to say it--get started.

Contact Sources

e-X Inc., (949) 361-7715

Incredible Ink, 503 W. Mary St., Austin, TX 78704, (512) 444-6069

Late Train,

Nixon Watches, (760) 944-0900,

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