When scuba diving was cool ... the swinging sixties of course
Updated: Aug 30
THERE was a time, way back when, that scuba diving was cool. Not the 'cool' us divers make believe it is today. Rather, a genuine Steve McQueen-type of cool that made us look so mysterious, adventurous and daring that others were desperate to be like us.
That was a time when scuba diving dominated ads in the sixties.
Back then, scuba diving fronted big advertising campaigns for even bigger products. Scuba divers were the kind of men who deserved a Camaro sports car, men of action and acquisition who read Playboy, manly men who quaffed the even manlier Ballantine Ale while enjoying every inch of a real Camel cigarette.
And women? By-and-large, they seemed to exist to show their scuba diving menfolk were masculine personified. If they weren't standing on the beach in a gold two-piece slathered in Coppertone or perched seductively on the bonnet of the new Fiat, they were enticing gentlemen to offer up a Tiparillo cigar, thanks to the new Maidenform bra which gave them 'the best shape yet'.
The foundations for this burgeoning fascination with the newly discoverable wonders of the underwater had been laid a decade earlier. Science and Jacques Cousteau had provided the 'how' to go diving and Sea Hunt's Mike Nelson offered the thrilling 'why'. He was a man investigating crime, mounting life-and-death rescue missions and battling bad guys under the ocean waves.
Kids wanted to be Mike Nelson. Hell, so did men. He was not any old man, he was a manly-man, the type of manly-man every other man wanted to be. Men were drawn to the idea of venturing into the unknown in search of long-lost treasure, facing off sharks with the glint of a knife and flash of a speargun. And if Howard Hughes' 1955, $3 million epic, Underwater! was to be believed, the women prepared to throw themselves at their manly feet were Hollywood sex symbols like Jane Russell. Then came James Bond and Thunderball. Diving was danger. Diving was desirable. Hell, diving was just damn fuck-me hot.
It was perhaps a given, then, that advertising agencies would begin selling the action, adventure and sex of scuba diving to a bunch of clients slathering over the new consumerism. You can almost imagine the idiotic Mad men-style pitch: "Mr Honda, you want your ad to scream: Give me sex! Well, let us tell you now, nothing captures the sex appeal of the Trail 55 motorbike like ... scuba diving."
"Err, scuba diving?"
"Yep. Scuba diving oozes adventure and daring, just like your Trail 55. So let's put the two together ..."
"Great. We love it."
The fact the engine would have spluttered to a smoke-filled halt under the weight of all that sexy diving gear didn't matter. The image of a man with a speargun in hand and a tank on his back was enough to make adults groan with excitement and swagger into the showroom declaring: "Is that a scuba cylinder in my pocket or am I here to ha' me one o' them sexy new Honda 55s?"
And so it went. You want to sell the excitement of a Citroen? Scuba diving. Thrill of insurance? Scuba diving. The puncture resistance of a tyre? Even Tampax chose to get a women in a wetsuit with a mask perched on her head to promote the freedom of their product. Yep, mix sanitary products and scuba diving ands you have a campaign winner right there.
Car manufacturers loved scuba diving because nothing said adventure and load-carrying boot space better there's having a sporty vehicle parked on a beach at sunset surrounded by diving equipment. Ford decided Steve McQueen's driving in Bullitt wasn't enough to sell the Mustang; no, you needed to be a scuba diver before they'd pronounce you: "Man and Mustang."
It was only a matter of time before cigarettes and alcohol jumped on board. To them, the debonair moderns were 'flipping our flippers' for a 7-Up and Vodka and sucking back on a Marlboro before they'd even slipped the tank off their backs or climbed out of their wetsuits. Women, meanwhile, were having to go diving to prove themselves worthy enough to sip a Canadian Club whiskey. And they were all having a jolly good time of it.
Sometime in the seventies, the sport began to lose its sex appeal and advertising agencies stopped using scuba to sell cars and insurance and sanitary products. Maybe they realised the images of people in rubber suits with hoses stuffed into their mouths was the wrong kind of sex to sell to the masses. They turned to surfing for a while, then Red Bull showed some guy throwing himself out of a capsule on the edge of space. Pfff.
Slowly, scuba diving developed a rather conventional image, one of bright coloured fish and coral reefs that didn't really scream glamour. Sure, those campaigns promoted exotic travel destinations, but they no longer sold anything else. In the UK, the accurate image of people in bulky dry suits with hands flushed red by the cold sea, noses running and hair plastered to their faces didn't scream hubby-hubba.
Even today, the sport has struggled to shake the idea that it is a traditional pastime for the oldies, despite all the efforts to appeal to the Generation X thrill-seekers with expensive rebreather technology and exciting travel opportunities. Scuba diving was used to promote the iPad air a few years ago, but that was about it.
The tropes of those sixties campaigns have stuck around, though. Scuba divers still do love their motorbikes, fast cars (just not Citroens), booze and - even though it's not good for them - smoking. Who says advertising doesn't work?