Friday, May 6, 2011

Frank - The Conquest of Cool

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

Addressing the typical historiography of 60s advertising and fashion which posits that industries co-opted countercultural youth values merely to sell products, Frank argues that advertisers and fashion designers were not cynical co-opters but, more complexly, believed and enthusiastically embraced countercultural ideals: namely, non-conformity.

On another level, Frank explicitly takes Cultural Studies and John Fiske to task, arguing that the trend toward focusing merely on reception and consumption ignores a more complex story on the production side.

Led by the agency DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach, particularly Bill Bernbach) and its groundbreaking Volkswagon ads, advertisers adopted frankness, self-deprecation, and anti-conformist tactics. They did so, Frank demonstrates through advertising archives, because they were anti-conformists themselves. The advertising agency was exactly the kind of stifiling bureaucratic office that was under attack in anti-conformist business literature, most notably Whyte's The Organization Man. Advertisers yearned for greater creative leeway, and saw the countercultural movement and critique as an argument for greater freedom at work.

Examples of Ads
Alka-Seltzer: "That's a spicy meatball!" self-consciousness about the fact that ads are artificial as a way to sell Alka-Seltzer.
Cola Wars: "The Pepsi Generation" v. old school Coke

Anti-obsolescence: ad for VW model for years 51-61. Same car. Ironically, obsolescence was key to men's non-conformist fashion boom of 60s, and continues to drive the essence of the fashion industry.

"The sixties are more than merely the homeland of hip, they are a commercial template for our times, a historical prototype for the construction of cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent. Co-optation is something much more complex that the struggle back and forth between capital and youth revolution; it's also something larger than a mere question of demographics and exploitation.Every few years, it seems, the cycles of the sixties repeat themselves on a smaller scale, with new rebel youth cultures bubbling their way to a happy replenishing of the various culture industries' depleted arsenal of cool. New generations obsolete the old, new celebrities render old ones ridiculous, and on and on in an ever ascending spiral of hip upon hip. As adman Merle Steir wrote back in 1967, "Youth has won. Youth must always win. The new naturally replaces the old."" (235)

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