The Conquest of Cool

Joseph Reagle Jr. <joseph.2004@reagle.org>

Introduction

When I first sat down to read Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool (1997), I immediately thought of my own brief encounter with the world of advertising. In 1996 I arrived at 750 Third Avenue, the offices of one of the largest advertising companies in the world: McCann-Erikson. I would be working with a nascent Web media group, consulting for an executive-VP in charge of acquisitions. On my first morning, as I watched the phalanxes of suits flow through the spinning doors I wondered if I made a mistake in not dying my hair color back to some semblance of normalcy? During the next few days, as I was introduced around, my artificial blondness was a cause for comment and the occasional raised eyebrow. Yet besides — or perhaps despite — my geeky confidence in the heyday of the dot-com bubble, it did not seem to hinder my prospects: "the creatives" had blazed a trail before me.

Within the company I did not work closely with the creatives, I spent more time with account managers and CIOs, but my hair did provide a commonality with the hipsters at the web boutiques with whom we discussed "synergies" and "opportunities."  (The VP remarked that some of these “Silicon Alley” start-ups were valuable if for nothing other than the relatively cheap SoHo real-estate on Third Avenue a square foot can cost more than $50 per month.)

After a few months I left McCann-Erickson, and in time the bubble burst, McCann-Erickson vacated its offices on Third, and even today their Web site consists of little more than text rendered in a JPEG concluding "Thanks for your patience while we update our site - Please check back soon." In my short time there I learned much, but my understanding of the creatives remained shallow. I was intrigued they had managed to create such a quizzical label/identity and a safe-zone of — presumed — creativity that fueled the advertising campaigns. I figured they were hipsters "with jobs" and the question of co-optation seemed like the puzzle of the chicken and the egg.

 Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool (1997) provides some the historical depth for understanding my puzzlement over “creatives.” Like Frank, I am too young to remember much from the counterculture movement and so his book provides an account of how the rebellious principles of the counterculture became married to the forces of advertising. And Frank's own youth may have served him well: requiring him to rely upon exhaustive research rather than personal recollection. (The density of fact and references also derives from its origins as his PhD thesis. ) This historical approach mitigates the common fault of reflecting upon the '50s and '60s as caricature. (And while Frank attempts to demystify both periods his ideological bias is perhaps revealed by the attention he pays to the neo-conservative response to the counterculture by the likes of Newt Gingrich, and the remnants of references to cultural critiques within the Marxist tradition.)

To render such historical depth, Frank notes a series of events, most notably seminal publications, that challenges our commonplace notions about the 1950s. While some, such as Ogilvy, had reveled in the application of instrumental methods to advertising, others lamented the lack of imagination and innovation. The first of which was not a countercultural philosopher, but the business writer William Whyte, who in 1956 labeled the cog in the machine as the Organization Man (Frank 1997:10). In the following year, Norman Mailer in his essay The White Negro defined the Organization Man's antithesis, "a figure Mailer called the hipster, an 'American existentialist' whose taste for jazz, sex, drugs, and the slang and mores of black society constituted the best means of resisting the encroachments of cold war and oppression" (Frank 12).

In 1960 Douglas McGregor synthesized these two views of human character in his book The Human Side of Enterprise, wherein he distinguished between the Theory X and a Theory Y approaches to organizational management (Frank 22). According to Theory X, people inherently dislike work and must be coerced and controlled; the Theory Y perspective is that work is rewarding and people appreciate self-direction and responsibility. Many in the advertising industry identified with this latter articulation as an alternative model for innovation and self-realization.

Eventually, even David Ogilvy, the champion of science-bound advertising, recognized the need for an infusion of creativity, "The sad truth is that despite the sophisticated apparatus of the modern agency, advertising isn't getting the results it used to get in the crude days of Lasker and Hopkins … Our business needs massive transfusions of talent. And talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, the dissenters, and rebels" (Frank 50, citing Ogilvy Confessions 20).

With this insight in hand, Frank focuses his analysis of the advertising industry in the 1960s as a counter "culture industry": a study of cultural production rather than reception. Cultural content was produced by an industry that was undergoing its own revolution in tandem with larger cultural changes which it both fed from and contributed to.

The seminal figure of the advertising industry's creative revolution was Bill Bernbach, the "guiding spirit" of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency (DDB). In the agency's landmark Volkswagen campaign, Bernbach was, "the first ad man to embrace the mass society critique, to appeal directly to the powerful but unmentionable public fears of conformity, of manipulation, of fraud, and of powerlessness, and to sell products by doing so. He invented what we might call an anti-advertising: the style which harnessed public mistrust of consumerism — perhaps the most powerful cultural tendency the age — to consumerism itself" (Frank 54). Bernbach’s thesis was that “advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art" (Frank 56).

However, convincing the management of one’s advertising firm of this sentiment was not the greatest hurdle; that challenge was held by the risk adverse clients of the agency. And such hesitation was met boldly. When a major client of DDB continued to be recalcitrant about a new campaign Bernbach forced a meeting with their Chairman. When the executive continued to resist the new campaign and argued that his company had been successfully selling the products for many years Bernbach responded, "Well, then in that case, Doyle Dane Bernbach will have to resign your business.” The Chairman looked to his marketing director and asked incredulously, "Are they allowed to do that?" (Frank 59)

Yet, what of the general public? Was it convinced? In the early 1960s a number of books were published accusing the big three automakers of planned obsolescence. The elaborate controls, huge streamlined fins, and technocratic jargon alluding to rockets and space planes had become an expensive habit, and one that the public was becoming skeptical of. This consumer dissatisfaction and sense of skepticism would become the motif of the new advertising. DDB’S Volkswagen campaign proudly claimed an ignorance of the corporate system, no visible change of the car in nearly a decade, and that if you wanted a “chariot” look elsewhere but if you wanted simple and inexpensive transport, look to the “bug”.

Frank argues that this self-critical-remove as a form of salesmanship reached its greatest heights in the famous 1970 spot for Alka-Seltzer wherein the viewer gets to see behind the scenes of a mock meatball commercial. The actor is to eat from a plate of spaghetti and exclaim, "Mama mia! That's a spicy meatball!" But he fumbles his lines and we hear the director of the commercial yell "Cut! Take fifty-nine!" Frank writes that, "The commercial was a masterpiece of the agency's long effort to turn public skepticism into brand loyalty: it recognizes advertising as artifice, and as a particularly ridiculous — and transparent — form of artifice as well … Only Alka-Seltzer, which intervened to rescue the long-suffering actors tormented digestion, stands above the mockery" (Frank 72). This is one example among many.

The book includes scores of such advertisements including a claim from El Al airline that their attendants only smile when they genuinely want to, advice for those buying a stereo on how to ignore the “ad man”, a 1970s Olds Cutlass Supreme portrayed as an “escape machine” from "Facts. Figures. Data. Reel after reel after reel.” The strategy paid off: the two firms on the edge of the creative wave (DBB and Wells, Rich, Greene) had profit margins of 30%-50% within their first few years of their existence (Frank 91).

Does this mean that the general public accepted the countercultural lifestyle? Or that hippies were now "down" with advertising? Not at all.  Frank argues that while the new form of advertising and counterculture shared a brief moment during when they were both sympathetic to the ideals of creativity and inspiration, the result of this encounter was something that was almost paradoxical: consumer youth culture.  

While a 1969 manifesto in Advertising Age heralded the "individual revolution" on the basis of principle, a statistic of post-baby boom demographics caught the attention of the profiteer, regardless of their revolutionary temperament, "... half of the nation's population was, or would soon be, under the age of twenty-five; and its corollary, the young people had control of some $13 billion in discretionary spending dollars — $25 billion if the entire age span from thirteen to twenty-two was counted" (Frank 109).

Even so, just as many Americans were not revolutionaries, most Americans were not of this demographic. Yet herein lies the intriguing mutation which set advertising on a course still used today: if one was not young, one could still aspire to youthfulness. Bill Bernbach was fifty-nine years of age in 1970, when he was described by E. B. Weiss as an "angry young man" (Frank 111). Everyone could be youthful, indulge in transitory whims, rail against the world, or throw off one’s shackles. These were the sentiments of what Madison Avenue labeled as the "The Now Generation."

Within the frame of the mass media, counterculture became consumer culture, “The imagery and language of youth can be applied effectively to all sorts of products marketed to varieties of people, because youth is an attractive consuming attitude, not an age" (Frank 118). The product did not become obsolescent, you did. And the only way to escape your own decrepitude was through the purchase of new products, "The Fountain of Youth has spilled over into new areas and is revitalizing the buying habits of some older, more affluent customers" (Frank 120, citing Merchandising Weekly, May 6, 1968 p. 8).

In 1968, Bob Fearon characterized the new consuming culture as such, "When the new generation buys they want it for now. They're not interested in how long it will last. These young people have a different idea about thrift. They have a new definition of value. They accept obsolescence. They want the new, improved version of tomorrow. Very important words. New, and improved. More than ever before. Everything is instant. Now. Everything is faster” (Frank 122, citing Merchandising Weekly, May 6, 1968 pp. 55-56). The impulse towards simplicity, towards skepticism, and the rejection of obsolescence had been transformed into a desperate need to satisfy an accelerated obsolescence!

Such was the general public's lot, but what of those with authentic countercultural practices? The Peace Corps, for one, was on the attack. One of its commercials lampooned the privileged idleness of the “now generation” with a parody of the anthem "Age of Aquarius": shabby animations of Jupiter and Mars align clumsily and rebound off of each other, and the moon is satirical rendition of the Procter & Gamble logo. In a 1968 Peace Corps radio spot traditional roles are reversed: a mother berates her son for not protesting in style, “The Peace Corps! What kind of crazy way is that to demonstrate for peace? You've got to carry signs, and chant slogans, and wear sandals! [singing] ‘We shall overcome ...’” (Frank 150).

In the Reality of Mass Media, Niklas Luhmann comments on the self exhausting character of information. In news, advertising, and entertainment once information is communicated it's no longer of interest; new information is needed, again. Frank notes a similar cycle in a 1972 Camel cigarette advertising slogan:

“They're not for everybody,” would certainly have been illustrated a few years before with a defined hipster rising up against a mass society, and now he is contrasted against figures whose commitment to the revolutions of the Sixties make them appear distinctly buffoonish….  the true individualist, the smoker of Camels, avoids the preposterous trends the Sixties have unleashed on the land. Creativity has come full circle: to resist mass society one must dress unremarkably and smoke the most mainstream of cigarettes. (Frank 151)

The flow of advertising content is a multi-layered current: out-of-phase sine waves osculating between the poles of hip and tired, sometimes amplifying each other in a peak of trendiness, or neutralizing each other in a slump of apathy. With these insights of industry/cultural synergies, the creation of the youth market, and the resulting accelerated obsolescence, Thomas Frank applies them to two more case studies: the cola wars, and the male fashion industry.

Frank argues that soda had been marketed as unique and vaguely subversive products since the late 1960s, “these soda ads stressed values of counterculture rather than simple countercultural appearances” (Frank 163). In some ways, it was the perfect product for this new age: a cheap disposable product purchased by young people.

Yet the Dr. Pepper brand had problems: if it was known at all it was thought to be "misunderstood." This was capitalized upon by using the honest/outsider theme of advertising. In a 1970s commercial, Dr. Pepper employees discussing this dilemma in a scene reminiscent of an evangelical prayer meeting: people don't understand us, what are we going to do, make them understand us! "Dr. Pepper may be America's most misunderstood soft drink, but with guys like we got, it won't be for long" (Frank 164).

7-Up equated the tyranny of mass society with the cola-monopoly and hitched its fortunes to the subversive movement with the moniker of the "Uncola." (After failing a few years before with the slogan of "Wet and Wild.") A drink that, "doesn't look anything like a cola, it doesn't taste anything like a cola" (Frank 167).  This was part of the strategy of the J. Walter Thompson agency's effort to reshape 7-Up as a drink that the upper-crust mixed with liquor, to a beverage in its own right. Yet the unorthodoxy of the Uncola campaign did pose problems, "It was a shocking campaign, ... the first several commercials that were done. When it was shown at the bottlers meeting, that I believe took place here in Chicago ... [late 1968 or 1969], I'm told, about half the bottlers got up and walked out. They were so outraged. They were incensed about this advertising" (Frank 166, citing an interview with John Fuller). Unlike Dr. Pepper, 7-Up also took advantage of explicit counter cultural imagery including psychedelic renditions of electric guitars, butterflies, rainbows, birds, hearts, and flowers. They even sponsored bands such as Credence Clearwater Revival, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

The greatest share of Frank's sugar-water analysis is reserved for one of the most clever renditions of product-as-identity: "Ever since the invention of the Pepsi generation in the early 1960s, Pepsi has offered not just the soda but a vision of the consumers as impudent insurrectionaries, sassy upstarts flouting the dull, repressive mores of the past" (Frank 169). With this campaign, in the 1960s, Pepsi initiated a polarized view of the cola universe that even outlasted the east/west split of the Cold War, "Pepsi is hip, Coke is square; Pepsi is youthful, Coke is fogey; Pepsi smashes roles and inhibitions, Coke is hopelessly entangled in the stultifying postwar order; Pepsi is for individualists, Coke is for conformists" (Frank 171). According to Alan Pottasch, Pepsi's vice-president of marketing, the Pepsi generation was, "25 million kids that we named and we claimed as our own with a big, sweeping invitation to live life to its fullest" (Frank 172, citing a Pepsi-Cola publicity video tape). This was a generation of millions humming such jingles as, "Free to choose a new way, free to stand up and say, you be you, and I'll be me," “ You've got a lot to live and Pepsi's got a lot to give,” and “There's a whole new way of living, and Pepsi helps supply the drive" (Frank 177-179).

Yet Frank reminds the reader, that Pepsi was not interested in subversion or promoting radicalism, nor in alienating any potential consumer by limiting their market: “’Live/Give’ was, rather, a grandiose cultural manifesto in an age of grandiose cultural manifestos, a division of counter cultural carnival as an all-American myth for the new commercial age" (Frank 183).  The genuine mission of the manifesto: to sell as much cola as possible.

Changes in the men's wear industry, labeled by Frank as the "Peacock Revolution", shared with the advertising revolution a serendipitous concurrency with the counterculture. Here too, industry practitioners identified a sluggish market and need for change. Henry Bach wrote that, "The industry still has not found within itself the mechanism or the power to effect style obsolescence to the degree that it becomes self generating" (Frank 189, citing Men's Wear, September 1959:22). This would soon be remedied.

In 1957 Gentleman's Quarterly was published as the first menswear magazine targeted towards the public. Its mission was to remake the "man in the gray flannel suit" into one who would never dress the same way “day after day.” In 1960 Pierre Cardin became the first high-profile men's fashion designer with the introduction of his, "trademark suits with their shape, two-button jackets and narrow, flared trousers" (Frank 189). The race toward obsolescence was on: and the "Mod" style — imported from Carnaby Street to America by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who —  was the first out of the gate in 1966. Yet it quickly faltered; the “Mod bubble” burst the following. But as Frank comments, this "demise seems to have persuaded almost no one that fashion was dangerous stuff" (Frank 191).

Instead, the industry began to see the growth in menswear that it craved, "In 1959-64, when fashion meant very little to the average guy and we still had drawers full of white shirts and racks of an narrow ties, men's wear had a growth rate of 2.7% a year compared with 4.2% a year for women's clothing. In 1964-68, when men were learning about fashion and color, men's wear growth rate increased to 3.7% [per] year, compared with 4.1% for women's wear" (Frank 195 setting York Times, February 8, 1970:17). An industry goal: to make a suit unfashionable in 2/3 years rather than the traditional 6/7 year change-over. Some thought that years or even seasons were still too long; Frank cites a Miami based retailer, “Cycle or seasonal buying is at an end… We’ll buy only on a steady basis” (Frank 198). And the industry was able to shift its production capabilities to meet this demand. The Rubin Brothers clothing factory was modeled after an automobile plant. From the basic body they could add lapels, pockets, and other stylistic flourishes while cutting in half the time it took to deliver product. (Frank 201). This new form of production altered the way in which the product was sold to retailers. They no longer had to make 6 month commitments for large orders; they could order a few items of the latest trend and have them on the racks within a few months.  

And the consuming public was seemingly willing to purchase them off of the racks just as quickly. "Turtlenecks were said to be a discovery of ‘youth power,’ as were new designs in socks (‘A Youth Powerd attempt to shake the black hose syndrome’).” (Frank 214, citing MW November 17th, 1967:20).  Jumpsuits, orange and yellow leisure suites, bellbottoms, ruffled shirts, massive stitching … styles which were once thought to signal vitality and individualism, are now the butt of nostalgic jokes. Yet the transformation in the men's wear industry exceeded these iconic tokens of the '70s. Bankers and stockbrokers still bought conservative suits, but these circulated within a more austere cycle of trends. In any case, men were buying and profits were up.

Thomas Frank's book provides what one might hope to find in a historical treatment: insight into how we came to be who we are, and a reminder that much of what we thought was unique to the present is not quite so. Contemporary hippies wear "patch pants" assembled from nearly 40 different fabrics; while these pants are supposed to connote a sense of non-convention and thrift, they cost hundreds of dollars. And the metro-sexual movement led by the "Fab Five" is an attempt to once again reinvigorate (via “product”) the stylistic consciousness of the average man. While the economic recessions of the 1970s put a damper on experimentation and reined in the excesses at the agencies, a course had been set – even if circular.

In his last chapter, Frank argues that “Generation X” is simply another manifestation in the cycle of transformation: a repeat “almost mechanically and yet without betraying the slightest inkling that was doing so”  (Frank 233) of discussions of 60s youth culture. Generation X has significant purchasing power, they’re skeptical if not cynical, they’re savvy consumers, they understand how to deconstruct media, and they love irreverence. As I read this book, I reflected back on Douglas Rushkoff’s documentary, Merchants of Cool, and thought of the new Volkswagen Beatle, the iMac, and the alleged novelty of Sprite’s approach towards the hip-hop youth market. Rushkoff wrote, “‘Wink’ advertising acknowledges the cynical stance of resistant viewers: Sprite commercials satirize the values espoused by ‘cool’ brands, sometimes even parodying their competitors' obvious image-based tactics, and then go on to insist, ‘Image is nothing. Thirst is everything’” (Rushkoff, excerpt).

Not much has changed! As Frank concludes, “As Merl Steir wrote back in 1967, ‘Youth has won. Youth must always win. The new naturally replaces the old.’ And we will have a new generations of youth rebellion as certainly as we will have new generations of mufflers or toothpaste or footwear” (Frank 235).

When I first picked up the book, I remember being intrigued by the title: “the conquest of cool.” Was this a story of coolness conquering advertising, or the other way round? When I had finished, I had realized that my question was beside the point.

Frank, Thomas C. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Luhmann, Niklas. The Reality of Mass Media. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Rushkoff. Douglas. Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999. Excerpt available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/rushkoff/coercion.html