Maybe you want a hoverboard for Christmas. Maybe your child does. Here’s a word of advice: Resist temptation. Crush dreams. Gift anything other than this year’s hottest gift: A Costco tub of candy corn, or a collection of 58 knives and swords bought off late night television, are both fine alternatives. You can even give an Apple Watch. Just don’t buy a hoverboard this season. You’ll thank me later.
Hoverboards have been on every kid’s Christmas list since 1989 when they figured in Back to the Future Part II. They weren’t real, but because of the one-two punch of Robert Zemeckis’s movie magic and penchant for pranks, many people thought they were. Kids and parents alike called stores asking if the Mattel-branded hoverboards from the movie were in stock. And why not? The hoverboard was the perfect toy: gimmicky, optimistic, and most of all, wondrous. Who wouldn’t want to escape baddies on a flying skateboard?
Twenty-five years later, the hoverboard has been bludgeoned to death by marketing departments. The hoverboards on sale today are just the latest, and most egregious, example. They don’t even attempt to do the foundational thing that hoverboards are meant to do: hover. Instead, a company called Hangzhou Chic Intelligent Technology Co., Ltd (since shortened to Chic Robotics) started building two-wheeled scooters balanced by gyroscope. Somewhere along the line, companies that were white-labeling these scooters coming off Chinese factory lines stole the term “hoverboard” for themselves, deeming the term as meaningless as “literally.”
None of this would matter if the hoverboard in its current state were something born from an innate desire within us all. The two wheels of a motorcycle symbolize freedom, exploration, and recklessness. The two wheels of this hoverboard mean nothing but that you spent $300 (or more) on something that moves you slower than you can run. That it has become one of the hottest gifts of the year speaks to the inexorable power of targeted marketing. Most notably, Kendall Jenner rode a blinged-out version around her kitchen and shared it to Instagram (in a deal that Wired reported used a well-placed friend, but likely involved a payout, too). Around the same time, elite networks of athletes, fashionistas, and musicians piled onto the hoverboard trend in an irresistible keep-up-with-the-royals marketing push.
Nothing about these marketer-celebrity efforts changes the simple fact that the hoverboard doesn’t look cool. It’s a Segway without the handlebar. It’s a 55-year-old white dude with a paunch who turned his hat backwards to sneak into a Miley Cyrus concert. Consider that nobody looks cool riding a hoverboard. JR Smith doesn’t look cool riding a hoverboard, and he’s an NBA superstar who is statistically proven to play better after a Lil’ Wayne release. You can’t make cool like that up, and yet, he looks like a complete doofus riding to a game on one. Wiz Khalifa doesn’t look cool riding a hoverboard, either, and he’s one of the hottest acts in hip hop who literally got arrested for riding a hoverboard. Getting arrested for anything is pretty much a one-way ticket to cool town, but thanks to the doofussy old hoverboard, Khalifa booked a round trip.
It’s a cynical approach to something fundamentally optimistic. Even though the original hoverboard was technically sponsored by Mattel, Back to the Future II was meant to portray a sunny view of the future, as BTTF2 concept designer John Bell told me in an interview last summer. “It wasn’t some sad, dystopian place, like you see in The Hunger Games or The Matrix,” I wrote in June. “It was a rare future that the audience would actually look forward to living.” That included the hoverboard. Alas, the plebeian Marty McFlys of the world won’t take to the air to defend their middle American values and secure their futures as rock ‘n roll stars. Instead, we’ll all just hop on some foot scooters to stumble wherever marketers decide to lead us next.