Buzzword X-plosion

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."

In spite of the Extreme Sausage Sandwich's hefty size--two sausage patties, two slices of American cheese and an egg on a bun--the people at Jack in the Box knew there wasn't much about it that qualified as extreme.

"There was some debate [over] what to name the sandwich," said Tammy Bailey, senior product manager. "Some people thought 'extreme' didn't really describe the build of the product, but with all the extreme sports going on, and guys as our primary target, we knew that was the word."

About the only thing extreme about the sandwich is its 700 calories and 51 grams of fat, which is on the high end in both categories for fast-food breakfast sandwiches. Between the name and the product, the Jack in the Box extreme sandwich has earned a permanent place on the menu, a respectable accomplishment in an industry in which new products frequently come and go. "It's done extremely well for us," Bailey added.

It Doesn't Work Magic for Every Product

But extreme doesn't work marketing magic for everyone, nor is it intended to. When Spectranetics Corp., a medical device company that develops, manufactures and markets excimer laser technology for cardiovascular treatments, introduced its Extreme .9mm disposable catheter, it didn't expect to create a stampede.

"We weren't marketing to teens," said Sharon Sweet, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based company. The name came about because of a marketing manager's fondness for extreme skiing and the product's design, which resembles a miniaturized ski slope.

To athletes who helped pioneer and spread extreme sports, the idea of deodorants, pizzas or children's toys being extreme trivializes the word. To them, something shouldn't be considered extreme unless there is a real possibility of calamity.

"True extreme sports are if you screw up, you die," said Kristen Ulmer, 34, a professional extreme free skier, ski mountaineer, ice climber, para-glider pilot, mountain biker and adventure traveler from Utah. "It's hard for me to deal with. I get annoyed with the general public's perception of extreme where they look at a skateboard or a taco and go, 'That's extreme.' I just laugh at that."

But such word devaluation is a predictable byproduct of a consumerist culture, argues Katherine Giuffre, a sociologist at Colorado College. To survive and grow, businesses are under relentless pressure to expand their markets for new products, which rarely are distinct from their other wares. So, without an exciting product to tout, marketers rely on exciting descriptors.

"We have become more sensationalist precisely because nothing is there," she said. "When you have something as bland as possible, how do you get the consumer to take that first bite?"

The fact that the buzzword was so quick to click is a reflection too of Americans' own discomfort, contends Aserinsky. "I think people are insulted by the ordinariness of life," he said. "Everything has to be grand; everything has to be great; nobody can be average. When that's the societal norm, it has to be feeling pretty empty inside."

Whether or not the country's self-esteem is running on empty, the use of "extreme" doesn't seem to be. Scores of registrations with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were filed within the last 18 months. But marketers realize it won't last forever. A decade ago, "ultimate" and "wild" were the hot marketing words, but now they're practically invisible.

"If I were marketing to parents, I'd say we have another five or six years," said Morgan of Extreme for Jesus. "But I think for teens, I've got maybe one more year at most. Then, we're going to have to get another word to get their attention."

It's anyone's guess what the next word of commerce will be. And, marketers said, if they did know, they certainly wouldn't pre-announce it.

But some marketers intend to stick by extreme. To the end, if necessary.

"If we change our name, it undermines our whole attitude," said Parodi of Extreme Coffee, who was ahead of the marketing curve by taking the extreme name in 1995. "If we change, it means we're conforming just because other people are overusing it."

Wild.

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X Definitely Marks the Marketing Spot These products are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C.

Right Guard Xtreme Sport

Antiperspirants and deodorants for personal use.

Pizza Extreme

Restaurant with carryout services based in Wisconsin.

Extreme Nutrition

Meal replacement and dietary supplement drink mixes; and vitamin, mineral, dietary supplements.

Extreme Polo Sport Ralph Lauren

Eau de toilette and after-shave lotion.

Extreme Directory Assistance

Provides telephone directory information.

Extreme Butter

Processed, unpopped popcorn with butter flavoring.

Extreme Lemonade

Candy.

Extreme Vanilla

Cologne, shower, bath gel, body lotion and skin soap.

Extreme Lotto

Lottery services offered via a global computer network.

Schick Xtreme

Shaving systems, namely razors and razor blades.

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