The Conquest of Cool – The Sixties As Advertising GimmickThursday, September 30th, 1999
The Conquest of Cool
Review By Dan Geddes
Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool successfully reframes the traditional perception of the Sixties counterculture: that it represented a rebellion against the consumption-oriented values of “mass society.” Frank’s purpose is to demonstrate that Madison Avenue and consumption-based industries such as soda bottlers and men’s wear welcomed the counterculture, realizing that the cult of instant gratification would make the Baby Boomers better consumers than their thrifty parents. Frank even suggests that the Creative Revolution in advertising anticipated and in some ways precipitated the counterculture. Historians of the Sixties have long described the “co-optation” of the movement by the advertising industry: its use of countercultural symbols. Frank’s thesis that Madison Avenue’s critique of “mass society” predated later critiques of the countercultural can warm the hearts of critics of capitalism: That capitalism could could generate a critique of itself in order to fashion a more turbo-charged consumer becomes as satisfying as any conspiracy theory, especially in light of Frank’s meticulous scholarship.
Frank exhibits the depth of his researches on almost every page, but whether or not the research serves to establish his thesis–or whether his thesis is new–is at least subject to debate. In the early chapters, Frank establishes that the 1950s business and advertising climate were characterized by “Organization Man,” a man who could easily fit into the cogs of the capitalist machine. Advertizers especially fit this mold, cowtowing to the wishes of conservative corporate clients, who wanted the safe, “scientifc” advertising for which the period is remembered. Perhaps because of classical economic theory, which viewed the consumer as a rational, calculating individual, advertising aimed to scientifically “prove” the superiority of a particular product, or to invent a “unique selling point” (USP) to differentiate the product to be sold.
But throughout the Fifties a general revulsion against the stultifying demands of consumer culture grew among the society at large. Organization Man worked at a large corporation where he was a number as well as a name, experienced a routine commute everyday, and was fooled into buying products (especially Detroit automobiles) that were designed with planned obsolescence in mind. Because of the post-war boom the Fifties, although in some ways remembered as a kind of peak of American capitalism, also laid the groundwork for the more sustained consumer culture that peaked in the late 1960s and has continued to this day. Yet, sinisterly, advertising has used this critique to present the illusion that one’s personal freedom and rebellion are affected through the purchase and consumption of certain commodities.
Frank asserts in his first chapter that his work is unusual in many respects. For one, it is a “study of cultural production rather than reception,” because Frank believes it is instructive to study the makers of culture, while so much contemporary cultural studies focuses on the cultural receptors’ ability to outwit or evade the onslaught of images. Secondly, Frank challenges the historical shibboleth of co-optation: he asserts that American business was very dynamic in the 1960s, and that far from passively reacting to the “authentic” counterculture supposedly invented by young people, advertising had done much to create these attitudes from the early 1960s onward. Many people in American business were as opposed to the conformity in American life as the young people.
Creative Revolution advertising, perhaps best exemplified by the Volkswagen campaign (1959-67), itself offered a critique of mass society, usually by portraying the competition (in Volkswagen’s case, the Big Three automakers) as producers of soul-deadening conformist products. Eventually even Detroit followed this trend in advertising, abandoning the scientific advertising of the 1950s, and trying to portray their products as engines of youth and rebellion. A “Peacock Revolution” overtook men’s wear, traditionally a very conservative industry, allowing the introduction of fashion (hitherto reserved for women’s clothing) which convinced some men to replace their wardrobes every few years. Pepsi managed to portray itself as the beverage of choice of young people (the “Pepsi Generation”), while Coke was conformist and represented establishment values. Youthful and hip attitudes became the perfect style to sell a new wave of obsolescence; if it wasn’t new, it was conformist.
Although the economic downturn of the early 1970s resulted in a lessening of the consumer boom, advertising was permanently altered. The battle of the hip versus the square became one of the central motifs in culture, especially after 1992 when “Generation X” was officially discovered and proclaimed the next media-savvy counter-culture, requiring especially ironic and self-conscious advertising.
Although a remarkable thesis, Frank fails to establish that the counterculture was somehow conceived by Madison Avenue (although at times he suggests this). He does, however, amply demonstrate that certain industries would welcome the counterculture as ideal consumers. Also, despite some treatment of the “genuine” counterculturals towards the end of his book, Frank creates an impression that members of the counterculture were all somehow dupes of Madison Avenue, that there was nothing at all truly threatening to the capitalist order of the late 1960s; most accounts suggest there was. Even if much of it was empty rhetoric, violent protests and riots still occurred, and could have spread and gathered in intensity.
I have always been struck by the wide gap between counterculturals’ claims of antipathy toward consumer culture, and the relative affluence and spendthrift ways of their members. Frank has helped me to resolve this apparent contradiction, and to view the Sixties in a new light.
September 30, 1999
Note: This article was originally published as “The Conquest of Cool: Were the Sixties a Fraud?”
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