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Buzzword X-plosion

It's only natural that in our more-is-better culture, 'extreme' is almost extraneous.

July 02, 2001|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EXTREME JOURNALISM IS HERE! IT'S FASTER, LOUDER, MORE OBNOXIOUS THAN ANY OTHER JOURNALISM! It paints outside the lines! It has no boundaries! It uses exclamation points any time it wants! Watch this!!!!!!!! It's beyond extreme! It's extremely X-treme journalism!

Well, not really. Not yet anyway. But there is a multitude of extremes banging around like meteors in the crowded pop culture universe. In fact, there are few things American that have gone untouched by the recent wave of extreme advertising and marketing.

Extreme vanilla. Extreme directory assistance. Extreme deodorants. Extreme Sausage Sandwiches. Extreme razors brought to you by mild-mannered Andre Agassi. Extreme catheters for laser coronary angioplasties. Extreme Elvis. Extreme for Jesus.

The makers of most of these--and several hundred other products and services--paid a $325 fee to protect their brand name with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Washington.

"I think people don't like being lumped in with everybody else. We all want to be independent," said Dan Parodi, president of Extreme Coffee Inc., based in Northern California. "We're all part of this group that wants to be an individual. Maybe that's an oxymoron." Indeed.

It wasn't so long ago that appearing extreme was a bad thing. Political scientists still blame Barry Goldwater's statement "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" as being chiefly responsible for his losing the White House to Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Extreme anything runs contrary to America's basic conception of itself. Whether we actually practice it, Americans have always strived to lead "balanced" lives, to be "well rounded" and to be moderate in all things. Even teenagers have not been immune from the pressure to be temperate: Their paramount social goal has been to always be "cool."

But by the early to mid-1990s, the vocabulary of moderation came under attack, largely as a result of the incredible marketing force behind the "X"--as in Extreme--Games. The annual televised event is a kind of Winter and Summer Olympics for the alternative-sports world and draws an audience of 20 million.

Sky surfing typifies the spirit and risk of the unconventional games. Parachuting competitors fly out of airplanes with their feet strapped to what looks like a snowboard and perform midair stunts before landing. Other popular X events include the street luge, "big air" snowboarding and bicycle stunts.

"When I was a kid I rode a bicycle and the big trick was, 'Look, Ma, no hands!"' said Armond Aserinsky, a clinical psychologist with a private practice near Philadelphia who tracks pop culture trends. "But today it seems to be stand on your head and jump the curb. It's all part of the trend that everything has to be over the top."

Best of all, from an advertising standpoint, the games attract a dream demographic--mostly suburban kids ages 12 to 25. The X Games quickly symbolized the youthful yearning to test limits, flirt with danger and to be different.

"ESPN poured millions into marketing the X Games, and suddenly everything became extreme," said Chuck Fresh, a creative director for Brevard Marketing in Florida, which bills itself as an "extreme marketer." "It could have just as easily been 'ultra' or 'super,' but it was 'extreme.' And we, like everybody else, jumped on the bandwagon."

The reason the wagon is so crowded with extreme advocates is because it often works. Ask Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Inc., owners of the Extreme for Jesus brand name, about the power of the word.

"We were looking for something that resonated with teens," said Hayley Morgan, brand manager for the Extreme for Jesus product line, which includes Bibles, bracelets, earrings, bumper stickers and temporary tattoos. "We got in front of a lot of kids and asked, 'What's cool with you?"'

The answers led to the development of the Extreme Teen Bible. In a normal business year, the Christian publishing company sells about 30,000 to 40,000 Bibles. In 16 months since the company released the Extreme Bible, it has sold 400,000.

Whether it's truly extreme is debatable, but there's no doubt it's different from un-extreme Bibles. The extreme version features a multicolored front cover with the phrase "No fears, no regrets, just a future with a promise." Inside, the book contains the new King James translation with "extreme" commentary--explanatory text in different-colored type and size, of certain passages of special interest to teens.

"Who decided the Bible had to come in burgundy or black?" Morgan asked. "God has been boring long enough."

Their success isn't all marketing either, Morgan explained.

"At his time, Jesus was a freak. He was going to parties, hanging out with prostitutes, hanging out with the dregs of humanity," she said. "He definitely would have been considered extreme."

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