The short commercial starts with a surfer standing at the edge of the ocean. The water is murky. The air is foggy. The music is ominous. To combat the general postapocalyptic vibe, the surfer zips into a specialized wetsuit. It’s a futuristic getup that locks out the elements, complete with gloves, booties, and a specialized facemask with a customized respirator. The mask even has a heads-up display that syncs with a glowing dashboard on a wrist gauntlet, so the surfer can track not only swell charts but also air quality, solar radiation, bacteria levels, and water toxicity.
This is the Rising Seas wetsuit from the surf company Vissla. The company began advertising it online with their latest surf video last month—and the guy shredding is none other than pro surfer Cam Richards. Cue the on-screen, all-caps selling points, like a “A bio-defense system to face the emerging ecological crises” including pollution, bacteria, and water acidification. The technology was supposedly developed alongside the ocean protection nonprofit Surfrider Foundation and environmental scientists.
There’s just one catch: It doesn’t exist yet. After letting the campaign air on Vissla’s home page and get passed around social media for about a week, Vissla and Surfrider have revealed the entire premise is a publicity stunt. They used the ruse to generate conversation and awareness that the oceans are in dire shape, and to encourage people to sign a petition for change that Surfrider plans to deliver to Congress during what it calls Coastal Recreation Hill Day, an upcoming politics push happening in early March.
“The basic sort of premise behind the campaign was to create this reaction, which is, ‘Wow, that wetsuit’s amazing. I want it,’ says Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen. “And then have that emotion quickly replaced with, ‘Oh, how sad is it that in the world we live in I need something like this.” From there, Nelsen says the initial online response ranged from “how tragic” to “why aren’t you trying to fight these problems instead of building a wetsuit to avoid them.” Finally, as many people reevaluated the technological leap of the super suit, it hit them: “Could this possibly be real?”
The Rising Seas suit might not be real yet—there are no plans to commercially manufacture it—but the scope of environmental degradation might make it necessary. “The idea was we’re building a wetsuit for this future where the oceans are in really bad shape,” says Nelsen. “The sad news is there are places where that wetsuit could be used today.” For instance, Imperial Beach at the California border near Tijuana is now closed 50% of the year due to pollution. In Florida, red tides of toxic algae blooms are driving more ocean-goers from the water with burning lungs and eyes.
By Surfrider’s calculations, coastal tourism is losing billons as shorefront health advisories increase: Their estimate is the 20,000 warnings issued annually cost the U.S. about $2.2 billion in lost revenues each year. All of that’s a function of global warming: Larger storms create more runoff, rising seas reshape coastal surf spots, and increasing acidity kills coral reefs.
The Rising Seas ad was developed in tandem with creative directors Scott Brown and Alex Kemp, who co-own Lone Wolfs Objets d’Surf, a Los Angeles surf company with its own film and music division. Vissla launched in 2014 in Orange County and prides itself in creating and selling sustainable products. Initially, executives were concerned about misleading consumers with a product that didn’t exist, but figured the environmental payoff from the stunt was worth the risk.
“Quite honestly, we just tried to weigh out the pros and the cons,” says Vince De La Pena, Vissla’s vice president of marketing. “No one in our industry has taken on a campaign like this with a message like this.” Vissla’s leadership team is made up of surfers who consider themselves environmental activists. “Ultimately, it’s obviously a message creating awareness about the situation we’re in. We’re all surfers, we all love the ocean, and we need to make changes in our lives so that we can sustain it,” he says.