Uncool

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 10 1997 3:30 AM

Uncool

Has hipness become the opiate of the masses?

The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism
By Thomas Frank
University of Chicago Press; 272 pages; $22.95

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If you've been watching television recently, you might have seen an ad featuring the Pentium computer chip. This little morality play contrasts a ragtag group of aging flower children with a gathering of young, glamorously dressed executives. When the '60s veterans try to play some pitiful music, they are quickly drowned out by the frantic brainstorming of their corporate descendants. The words "Make Money, Not War" flash at the viewer.

These days, it hardly raises an eyebrow when yet another '60s-style slogan enters the corporate lexicon. Politicians might fault the decade for its legacy of permissiveness and the pursuit of too much happiness, but Apple blithely urges us to "think different," while Fruitopia's graffiti-strewn magic bus rolls merrily across the screen.

In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank offers an indignant explanation of this state of affairs. According to Frank, the '60s pageantry of rebellion was welcomed--and in some respects, anticipated--by marketers and manufacturers. The real legacy of the Woodstock era, Frank believes, was an all-embracing ethos of "hip capitalism" that holds us in its paisley thrall to this day. (Had Dustin Hoffman known how cool these plastics people were, he would never have been so confused about his future.) The world has been made safe for stylish nonconformity, and the prospect of genuine dissent has been banished.

Though Frank says he aims to illuminate the entire world of "business culture," his book actually concentrates on the image-conscious executives of the advertising and men's-clothing industries. The story begins in the early '60s, when a small band of Madison Avenue radicals launched the "creative revolution." Advertising in the '50s had been a timid, stifling business. Admen populated their creations with lab coats and graphs and prided themselves on the scientific precision of their work. Detailed rule books expounded the doctrine of the "unique selling proposition"--a clear, simple message that would establish the superiority of a given product over its competitors. (Wonder bread "helps build strong bodies twelve ways.") The results were humorless and hectoring, a tedious, nonstop barrage that was better suited to a Mad magazine satire than to the subtle task of infiltrating the wary consumer's mind.

By the end of the Eisenhower years, advertisers were eager to shake up their industry and address the public's alienation. If consumers were unhappy with the gaudy, chrome-plated excess of '50s consumerism, if they resented the crude ministrations of Madison Avenue, then this was something that advertisers needed to know, and to act upon. The trick was to make the middle class's pervasive dissatisfaction with commercialism, cheap goods, and planned obsolescence into an instrument of consumerism itself.

The first and most influential trickster was an adman named Bill Bernbach, whose famous campaign for the VW Beetle began in 1960. Bernbach satirized the grandiose claims of '50s advertisers by making a virtue of modesty: VW urged its customers to "think small." Another client--Avis Rent A Car--boasted, "We're No. 2!" The style caught on: Perhaps the most memorable example of commercial diffidence was a 1961 ad for Fina gas stations, which humbly suggested, "If ... you need gas or something, please stop in."

All this self-mockery was typically accompanied by a subdued design; the consumer's suspicions would be disarmed with light humor and quiet sophistication. But the message was plain and clear: Individualism and nonconformity could sell a product. Bernbach and his colleagues had discovered, as Frank puts it, "the magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it had itself produced." When the counterculture burst on the scene, advertisers simply found a new, much brighter "palette" for the presentation of already established messages. Before long, a sea of psychedelic ads flooded the nation, urging consumers to "break away from the silent majority" or even to "impeach Miss America."

The marriage of counterculture and capitalism is hardly a new subject, but Frank does provide a refreshingly unsentimental look at it. He does not believe that sinister advertisers were simply trying to capture or control an idealistic--and burgeoning--young audience. Rather, he argues, Madison Avenue was sincere in its "cosmic optimism" about youth culture: Marketers didn't want to contain countercultural energies so much as to release them into the world at large. Ads with aggressively youthful themes were just as likely to appear in Ladies' Home Journal or Look as in the underground press. And those ads often hawked products that only the prosperous and middle-aged would be able to buy. The point was not to sell to the young; it was to create a vague but attractive image of rebellion for all to enjoy.

Frank is a young academic who is best known as the founder of a lively cultural criticism 'zine called the Baffler. For a renovated dissertation, The Conquest of Cool is blessedly free of academic throat-clearing and professional jargon. There isn't a dull page in the book. Unfortunately, Frank's frequent generalizations about "the world of business and of middle-class mores" are far less convincing than the particular stories he has to tell. The advertising and fashion industries, after all, are not representative of "postwar American capitalism." If there were any businessmen who didn't welcome youth culture, they don't appear here. (We are told that the sales of men's hats fell dramatically between 1964 and 1970--did hatters enjoy the decade too?) Frank also ignores a more sober aspect of '60s revolt: the consumer movement. Responding to public pressure, the Federal Trade Commission banned cigarette advertising on radio and television in 1970, and established tough regulations on "truth in advertising" shortly thereafter. Ralph Nader may not have been "hip," but he was definitely a '60s character.

W hen it comes to the present, Frank paints with particularly broad strokes. At his best, he deftly skewers the inanities of corporate-sponsored dissidence. (The editor of Details is quoted as asking himself, "How is a man rebelling today?") But the antinomian antics of some Madison Avenue firms and glossy magazines hardly establishes that "rebel youth culture" is "the cultural mode of the corporate moment." It may be fun to say, as Frank put it in the Baffler, that William S. Burroughs' "inspirational writings are boardroom favorites, his dark nihilistic burpings the happy homilies of the new corporate faith." But what does it mean? Chances are that when Nike put Burroughs in one of its ads, none of the company's executives had even heard of him. As for "middle-class mores," a culture eager to embrace the V-chip surely subscribes to other beliefs besides the desirability of transgression at any cost.