It's an overcast Wednesday on San Onofre State Beach, three miles of steep, shrub-covered bluffs 85 miles south of Los Angeles. The beach, known for its gentle, user-friendly waves, is alive with surfers of all ages, wet suits pulled down around their waists as they wax their boards or just hang out.
This is the setting for "Surf Camp," the latest execution of ESPN's "Without Sports" campaign, by Wieden + Kennedy New York. Launched in 2003 as the network's first branding effort, the visually dramatic executions—meant to appeal to both obsessed sports fans and their more casual counterparts—transform simple, recreation-oriented vignettes into universal truths.
"It's about sports and life," says ESPN brand director Kevin Kirksey of the campaign. "They're not only in parallel, but one and the same."
Tagged "Without sports, where would we find ourselves?" this marks the campaign's 20th execution. Appearing in final form as 30- and 60-second TV spots, as well as a four-minute online film, the work focuses on the healing power of sports via surfers' "spiritual relationship with the ocean," says Wieden copywriter Greg Kalleres, who worked with art director Jesse Coulter on the ad. The concept may seem cliché, he admits, but there's a deeper facet: The spot's 60-plus young surfers are campers at Surfers Healing, a San Clemente, Calif.-based non-profit that introduces severely autistic children to the bliss of wave-riding.
The idea for the commercial originated with an article in People about the organization, Kalleres says, and its leaders, longboard champion and surf-culture fixture Israel "Izzy" Paskowitz and his wife Danielle. After years of seeking treatment for their now 14-year-old son Isaiah's autism, the couple realized he was most at peace when gliding along the waves.
To direct the spot, Wieden called on RSA, Los Angeles' Emmett and Brendan Malloy, directors and surf enthusiasts known for the soothing, realistic tone of their work, particularly in ocean-set scenes. Via the Moonshine Conspiracy, a surf culture-embedded artists' collective, the brothers have released feature films that include Shelter, September Sessions, and Thicker Than Water; their cousin Keith Malloy, also a Moonshine director, is a Surfers Healing counselor. The Malloys brought "a lot of guys who shoot surf movies" to work on the spot, says Emmett, who describes its overall vision as "defined by simplicity." Most of the footage was shot underwater, with two waterproof 16mm cameras resting on boogie boards and fins. Three on-land cameras were used as well.
"But it's not how crazy we can push the equipment," Emmett notes. "It's how indiscreet we can be. Our surf films are really much like our own home movies, documenting what we do, what we see, the waves we surf with friends. ... We're looking to capture emotions, smiles, fear."
There's certainly no lack of emotion on the San Onofre beach, and all of it is captured on film: lots of hugging and kissing and crying, too. The spots feature all this, with a voiceover by Izzy Paskowitz. "Some of the kids, they don't know how to speak," he says over footage of families in various stages of surf preparation, from playfulness to panic. "The only words that come out of their mouth is screaming."
On the beach, one pre-teen camper clutches his chest with fear or excitement as his mother leads him to a gently beckoning counselor. In the water, yellow-and-black wet suit-clad instructors hold kids steady on their boards; some lose their balance more than once. Still, whether held up shakily by their counselors or raising their arms in victory, all the campers elicit whistles and cheers.
"Man, we've had a lot of tough times," Paskowitz says at the conclusion of his voiceover, echoing words he's heard from parents since starting Surfers Healing seven years ago. "But today was just a perfect day."
The "Without Sports" campaign was originally created "to remind men that sports were important and show them why," says ESPN's Kirksey. While the work has evolved over the past three years, the message remains the same: "Sports impacts lives," Kirksey says. "And this story is such a special story. [It's an] absolute, black-and-white example of what we set out to do with the campaign."