Flipping the Board
Burton founders lash out at critics trying to shred their good name
Photo courtesy of Burton Snowboards
Jake Burton Carpenter
Jake Burton Carpenter wasn’t the first person to ride a board down a snow-covered slope, but he made it fast and cool. Inspired by a children’s winter toy known as the “Snurfer,” which was destined to become a historical footnote, Carpenter’s “Burton boards” gave rise to a new winter sport and a multibillion-dollar industry.
Since the founding of Burton Snowboards more than 30 years ago — the company still dominates the global snowboard market and employs more than 500 people in this state alone — Jake Burton Carpenter and his wife, Donna, have called Vermont home. And for most of that time, Vermonters have spoken their names with the kind of reverence reserved for the state’s other pair of super-celebrity entrepreneurs: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. After all, Burton is to snowboarding what Ben & Jerry’s is to ice cream: chill, tasty, homegrown fun.
But for some Vermonters, that reverence has turned into something else: disappointment, revulsion and anger. In October, Burton released two limited-edition snowboard lines — the “Love” board, featuring vintage Playboy centerfolds; and the “Primo” board, designed by skateboard artist Todd Bratrud, featuring cartoon depictions of mutilated hands. Vermont’s antiviolence community, among others, went ballistic.
Within days, protests were held at Burton’s corporate headquarters in Burlington, with condemnations coming in from activists of all stripes. Organizations such as Spectrum Youth & Family Services pulled out of the Burton-sponsored Chill program, which teaches underprivileged kids how to ride. To date, 23 North American resorts have issued statements banning their employees from riding the Primo or Love boards while on duty, and a few have said they’ll ask customers to remove them and ride rentals instead. Last week, the Burlington City Council even passed a resolution asking Burton to meet with the community.
Through it all, Jake and Donna Carpenter have maintained official silence — until now. This week, the couple agreed to an interview at Burton’s Burlington headquarters, to respond to the avalanche of criticism. They’re firing back at those who’ve accused them of misogyny and promoting self-mutilation.
Anyone looking for an official apology or concession from Burton’s founders will be sorely disappointed. And, lest anyone suggest that the company is only trying to repair its tarnished image in time for the holiday shopping season, Jake and Donna seem wholly unconcerned that the protests are hurting their bottom line.
In fact, this week Burton unveils a new line of boards in response to the protests, available exclusively in Vermont. Dubbed the “Love Amendment,” the board features blacked-out sections of the U.S. Constitution on the boot side. On the bottom is a checklist of “Things to fight today,” including poverty, famine, Wall Street greed, political partisanship, homophobia, bigotry, cancer, militarism and global warming. At the bottom of the list, the only box checked is “Burton Snowboards.”
Snowboarding: Where altitude meets attitude.
SEVEN DAYS: Were you shocked by the public reaction to the “Love” and “Primo” board designs?
JAKE BURTON CARPENTER: We’ve been through similar types of things, and usually you hear a few people speak up, and then it goes away, because the majority of the market buys into the product. This time, it started out the same way, but then the few people who spoke up went on a mission.
DONNA CARPENTER: They lobbied the city council, they called the ski resorts and every nonprofit I’ve ever worked with, they called doctors and lawyers and board shops . . .
JAKE: So, what we heard from these groups didn’t seem to be organically grown from within these groups. It was more that they’d been contacted from outside individuals — and consistently, the same individuals — and pressured into reacting . . . But it’s not our style, anyway, to listen to people who don’t snowboard or who are from another snowboarding demographic . . . Craig Kelly, who’s one of the best snowboarders in the world, taught me how to listen to riders, and that’s what we’ve done. That’s how we develop products, and that’s how these products were developed. We have a couple of core, older teenaged male riders — one from Norway and one from California — and this is what they wanted to do. They wanted to do pinup art. We interpreted that, but did it in a very tasteful, kitschy, tongue-in-cheek way . . .
SD: What about the Primo line, with its graphic images of self-mutilation?
DONNA: There’s a peace sign being cut and there’s “peace” underneath. I took that as sort of an antiwar statement. It’s skateboard art! This has nothing to do with kids cutting themselves.
JAKE: In the context of what’s been going on for years in snowboard and ski graphics, and society in general, we just felt a little singled out.
SD: Do you personally sign off on all designs?
JAKE: I used to have all products wheeled in for me, look at them and then make all these decisions. I don’t do that now. I don’t talk about a product unless I’m in the presence of team riders and that makes me say a whole lot less than I would if I were running this dictatorial-type setup. So we do have these roundtables, we listen to the riders and there’s a process where senior management sees every product.
DONNA: I do the same thing . . . They came to me and said, “You may want to talk about this Love board” because I run the women’s leadership initiative. My first reaction was, “No way!” before I saw it. And then I saw them, and I want to err on the side of not stepping on the toes of product, because it’s not about what I like and don’t like. They always remind me that I’m a little outside the demographic for a lot of these products. But they showed it to me and I said, they’re funny, they’re tongue-in-cheek, they’re not obscene. I said, “I can live with this.” And I think there’s a generational divide. I knew that most snowboarders in their twenties and thirties would not be offended by this.
SD: Is Burton being held to a different standard because it’s a Vermont company?
JAKE: By some individuals, for sure. And that’s putting us in a very difficult position. We’re in business here, but our taxes are probably as high as what we do in sales volume in Vermont. We’re a global company that sells products throughout the world.
DONNA: And that’s what made it so tough personally. [Vermont is] such a small part of our market . . . but I think the boards’ [designs] themselves have been distorted or misrepresented.
SD: I’m all about free speech and anticensorship. But the flip side of that coin is personal responsibility —
JAKE: You couldn’t be more involved in women’s issues than Donna is. I just don’t see how anyone can look at that [Love] board over there and say, “I’m going to go out and sexually abuse somebody.” To me, that’s a really backwards, book-burning-type [mentality] and I just don’t get it . . .
DONNA: We’ve set the standard in the industry for attracting, retaining and promoting women . . . And, I do think it’s a generational issue. I think young women look at that Love image and go, “It’s beautiful, it’s kitschy, it’s vintage, it’s tongue-in-cheek.” And if older women are going to make this their issue, they’re going to alienate younger women.
SD: Donna, you said you wouldn’t buy your 12-year-old son a Love board. What’s the difference between him owning one and someone else’s son seeing one on the mountain?
DONNA: I think there’s a big difference.
SD: How so?
DONNA: Well, first of all, I don’t know of any kid that’ll be shocked by seeing that . . . But I really don’t think, unless I pointed it out to my son specifically as a horrible issue, compared to what he’s exposed to on a daily basis . . .
JAKE: Or walking by a magazine rack. Don’t you think that it’s a little different from a 12-year-old picking up a Maxim? Is walking by a magazine rack the same as buying every magazine on the rack for a 12-year-old? I think there’s a very big difference. But I don’t think you need to have a curtain over it.
SD: Aren’t snowboard graphics more a form of “public art,” unlike video games or porn magazines that people buy and consume in the privacy of their own homes?
JAKE: I think a magazine rack is public. I was in a general store and I saw postcards that were much worse than this . . . You go to the beach and you see more than you see on these boards. I don’t know how sheltered these people are with their children, but it seems like they’re going to have to be living in an opaque bubble to not be exposed to images that are every bit as X-rated as these are.
DONNA: And I would rather spend time explaining to my son some of the issues women face in our society than have him worry about this image. How he thinks about women is going to be determined by how his father treats women. And he’s seen a great role model. I don’t think I should have to waste my time explaining why this image is humorous, tongue-in-cheek or vintage. A 12-year-old is not going to get that! But he’s also not going to be shocked.
SD: What’s the Primo imagery all about?
JAKE: It’s toilet humor. It’s skateboard art. It’s what it is . . . The people who are up in arms over this probably aren’t taking the time to bend over and look at a skateboard as it goes by, any more than they might be in a lift line at a ski resort. The artist himself comes from the skateboard world. We heard from the riders that they wanted something that was skateboard-inspired . . . art, and we went to the best artist and gave him free rein. And the riders loved it.
DONNA: I have a close friend whose daughter has some serious psychological issues and she cuts herself and puts cigarettes out on her arm. And she said to me, “The idea that a snowboard graphic could influence my daughter one way or another trivializes the issue.” . . . So, instead of talking about what is happening that would make kids want to do that, we’re somehow projecting that onto a snowboard that has nothing to do with it . . .
SD: How are the boards’ sales? I assume they’ve been helped by this controversy.
JAKE: Sales of both the boards have well exceeded expectations. They were both made in limited quantities and sold in very limited distribution to the core market. They weren’t for mass distribution. But they completely oversold by virtue of this exposure . . . Whatever the intention was to draw attention to them has probably backfired.
SD: Backfired in terms of harming Burton?
JAKE: In terms of minimizing the exposure of those boards . . . They just would have gone into the hands of people who you could never change their minds anyway.
DONNA: We even saw some blog entries where people said that we staged this whole thing!
SD: Anything to that?
DONNA: No, there’s not.
SD: Are there images you wouldn’t put on a board?
JAKE: Sure! There’s products out on the market that we wouldn’t be particularly proud of . . . We could have gone to the lowest common denominator, but that’s not our style. I think we do take the high road — maybe not within every world, but within the snowboard world — and I think we’re looked at as a pretty cool company that has a sense of taste and couth.
SD: Among your fastest-growing market demographics are girls and young women. Any concern about alienating them?
DONNA: When I was first told that we were going to put centerfolds on a snowboard, I was a little upset. But then, I saw the images and I knew who they were for and in small distribution and I said, “You know what? These are pretty harmless. They’re vintage and retro. There’s nothing obscene showing.” It’s not just that sex and violence sells and let’s get the worst images we can and throw ’em up. That’s not our style.
JAKE: Women who buy our boards get snowboarding and they understand the whole lifestyle that the market revolves around, and they’re not affected.
SD: Some people have suggested that Burton isn’t concerned about this controversy because it just builds your brand identity with edgy, teenaged boys who want to be anti-establishment and piss off their parents. Was that the idea?
JAKE: No. They don’t want to piss off their parents . . . When we first got involved in snowboarding, kids weren’t even on the hill. Their parents skied, and if teenaged boys were there, they were down playing video games in the arcade. That’s what resorts were building. Now they’re building half-pipes and [terrain] parks. I don’t think that they want to piss off their parents. But they do want to have something that their parents aren’t about to buy. It’s the same thing for their snowboarding. They’re over in the park going off 40-foot tabletops that their parents aren’t going off. They want things for themselves just like you and I did at that age, and they’re entitled to that. It wasn’t designed in this angst, piss-people-off mode. It was designed as something . . . for that crowd, but not in a hateful way.
SD: Your supporters emphasize what you’ve brought to Vermont economically —
DONNA: And to women! [Jake] made the decision the first year of the U.S. Open to offer equal prize money to women and men, which was unheard of. We’ve always had a great reputation as a leader in our industry. To then be accused of misogyny, was like, whoa!
JAKE: And then look at what the Chill program has done for children. And these people, in their infinite wisdom, decide that an agency, one of hundreds of agencies, shouldn’t participate in Chill because of this? That’s so short-sighted, unfair and selfish, imposing their political views upon kids. They deserve people with a bigger, better perspective on the world. That so upset us.
SD: Have you sat down with any of your opponents?
JAKE: Donna has. I haven’t. I adhere to the Burton process, which is what our logo is. It’s listening to snowboarders and making products for them.
DONNA: I’ve worked with a lot of women’s organizations and . . . had conversations with them. This particular group that went to city council and organized the protest and made the largest stink . . . there was a wall there. “Let’s talk after you fulfill our demands.” I don’t think so.
JAKE: The reaction I get from out-of-town people is, “What’s going on there? Is book-burning in vogue in Vermont now?”
SD: Why go public now?
DONNA: Because I think the boards were distorted and misrepresented. When you hear this statement that “Burton promotes self-mutilation and pornography,” maybe you don’t read the whole article. Maybe you’re only catching it here and there, and you think, “Wow! This Vermont company is throwing X-rated images and teaching kids how to cut themselves.” That’s awful.
JAKE: I don’t want to get personal with you, but I presumed the Vermont media would lose interest. And they didn’t.
SD: Because we’re still getting letters from readers expressing very strong emotions.
DONNA: We also realized . . . that all of a sudden, anybody who ever had a grudge against snowboarders . . . or against Burton or was upset about what kids are exposed to today, all of a sudden they had a way to vent . . . But I really felt like their anger is misdirected.
SD: Any plans for Burton to leave Vermont?
JAKE: No . . . Vermont is a great place . . . We’ve got great mountains here, we’ve got great conditions, we’ve got great people working here, we’re close to Montréal and Boston and New York. We’re not New Hampshire, but that “Live Free or Die” mentality also exists in Vermont and we’d like to think we’re not living in an ultra-right-wing state.
SD: Any regrets about how this unfolded?
JAKE: In hindsight, maybe we should have spoken up a lot sooner, not to the individuals [who protested] but to people within the state who were wondering what we thought of this.
SD: No concern this will hurt your company long-term?
DONNA: Or short-term.
JAKE: Or mid-term.