Thomas Frank. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. xii + 287 pp. $22.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-25991-8.
Reviewed by Ulf Zimmermann (Department of Political Science and International Affairs, Kennesaw State University)
Published on H-PCAACA (July, 1998)
The history of "cool" is usually depicted as one of individuals rebelling against corporate mass culture. One of the several central details this black and white picture misses, according to Frank, is that the so-called counterculture was in fact by and large a mass culture movement itself. This was true certainly by the time the Beatles arrived in 1964, and, as they so well illustrate, this culture had its greatest moments in mass media like television, radio, and movies through which its producers and performers were becoming millionaires thanks to the masses.
While Frank acknowledges that the "counterculture" had its roots in bohemian and romantic antecedents, his concern is to show that this originally adversarial culture (as was still the case with the beatniks) became "hegemonic" during the 60s. This occurred because American capitalism itself was every bit as dynamic and revolutionary as any youth movement of the period and, indeed, transformed itself from its gray-flannel-suited image of the 50s to the hip styles that would dominate the 60s and early 70s. That is not to be denied, but it chiefly suggests that it was not a real counterculture of any sort that became hegemonic, but a capitalistically coopted version of it, and much of the time that is the case Frank makes.
With his study of contemporary management literature, he shows that such a revolution had long been going on in business in any case. Management thinkers critiqued mass society and business bureaucracy as much as any other intellectuals, as illustrated by Douglas McGregor's "Theory Y" which offered an alternative approach to motivation that stressed individual initiative in contrast to those Tayloristic "Theory X" coercive methods. The practitioner Robert Townsend likewise made his case with his anti-bureaucratic "up the organization" writings and his anti-Hertz "We're No. 2" ads for Avis. And with folks like Dwight McDonald and Daniel Bell writing for, of all things, Fortune magazine, and one of its editors, William F. Whyte, Jr., producing the era's classic critique of the "organization man," we should know that business people were hardly laboring in a benighted cultural darkness.
They had, in fact, discovered that seeking to inflict a uniform product on a diminishing mass of "organization men" no longer worked nearly so well as targeting particular "demographics." But what every one of these newly created market segments would go for was the all-powerful new appeal to youth, for which Frank cites the "Pepsi generation" as the prime model. A related aspect was the rejection of the "old" mass products and the appeal to rebellious individualist products and consumers. (Luckily you just had to think young to take part, so that no one was excluded.)
It was here that advertising played its pivotal role in this cultural transformation. The genius of Bill Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach, which would become the paradigmatic agency of its age, was that he harnessed people's skepticism of mass consumerism, of mass conformity, to consumerism itself. His ads, in their simplicity and directness, enabled people to reject those mass values while at the same time they enticed them to buy, in great masses, the products which would distinguish them from the masses. By thus incorporating the critique of mass society in their ads, corporate capitalists were able to coopt that individualistic critique--and, of course, any other approach would not have sold as well to this "young" generation.
Bernbach's VW ads are the classic case in point and, while this story has often been told, Frank does well to show us the power of cooption by reminding us that Bernbach, himself Jewish, would radically turn this Nazi "people's car" into an icon of democratic dissent. More generally, Frank rightly stresses that the automobile was central to consumer history because of the individual mobility (and sexual freedom) it permitted. The turn signaled in this history by VW is rather ironic, too, in that its stubborn sameness is what distinguished it from Detroit's obsolescing mass monsters. Like many of the other ads Frank cites, VW's solved the problems consumerism had produced--but of course you had to buy a VW to do it.
What these ads thus reflected was a "creative revolution" that had been going on in the world of business, spearheaded, understandably, by advertising agencies. (Other industries followed suit, notably in men's wear, as he shows, though it doesn't really add anything to his argument.) "Hip" advertising thus, he asserts, actually preceded the hippies. By 1965 it was in full flower--Bernbach's VW ads had, after all, begun in 1959 (not to mention that Norman Mailer had told us just to be "hip" as early as 1957, as Frank notes).
Ultimately this leaves him begging the question of his own title: Was this really the "conquest of cool" by corporate capitalists or was the counterculture their "creation of cool"? Frank seems inclined toward the latter or at least alternates between that and the more conventional notion of cooptation which he cites more often than necessary. But perhaps the story is much simpler. As his text intimates, the Tayloristic model of bureaucracy, with its interchangeable "organization man" parts, had simply run out of steam, and in the wake of the beatniks and their countercultural fellow travelers, the number of individuals who rejected, indeed, rebelled against this model simply began to swell to dominance, at least in their own image of themselves as anti-consumerism consumers. After all, there wasn't just McGregor in the management literature. He'd been preceded by Abraham Maslow in psychology preaching "self-actualization," by the famous Hawthorne Experiment findings in industrial psychology, and in a plethora of other research and writing, in addition to the critiques Frank cites. By 1964, as he rightly notes, this earlier minority tendency had turned into a mass movement. And as far as the business world was concerned, I'm easily persuaded it was simply that the advertising industry was most susceptible to these countercultural trends, as much of Frank's own documentation seems to suggest.
But that is not to deny, as he does seem to do, that there was a real counterculture that existed, before and after the English Beatles and the German "Beetles." Rightly or wrongly, some folks bought Volkswagens precisely for the promise of durability they seemed to offer, unlike their Detroit competitors, and not just to be hip. And as Frank's own efforts attest, there are some other real countercultural values that haven't been coopted.
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Ulf Zimmermann. Review of Frank, Thomas, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.
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