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Sunday, March 02, 2008,12:08 AM
The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of HipConsumerism
By Abe Peck

In 1968, Petrocelli sport coats adopted the
advertising slogan "Tune in. Turn on. Step out."
This gloss on one of the most famous slogans of
the counterculture--Timothy LearyˆÒs "Tune in.
Turn on. Drop out."--symbolizes the paradoxical
relationship between American consumer
capitalism and the counterculture of the sixties. As
Thomas Frank argues in this fine book, American
business underwent its own cultural revolution in
the sixties, a process that paralleled, and in many
ways even anticipated, the broader cultural
upheavals of the decade. Focusing on
developments in advertising and menˆÒs fashion,
Frank complicates standard notions of hippie
innocence and corporate venality to offer a
complex and compelling study of the dynamic
nature of capitalism and the ways it foresees,
deflects, eviscerates and absorbs alternative value

The sixties, of course, is still very much a
contested decade in the national memory. For
conservatives, like Robert Bork and Newt
Gingrich, it symbolizes a period in which
traditional standards of decency were overwhelmed
by an ethic of hedonism. For those more
sympathetic to the political and cultural changes of
the period, the sixties witnessed a welcome
challenge to the rigidity and repression of the grayflannel
fifties. But as Frank indicates, out of these
diametrically opposite readings emerges a
consensus that business represents order, stability
and tradition while the counterculture represents
freedom, anarchy and liberation. Thus is posited a
simplistic vision of capitalism as a static entity. In
fact, though, capitalism is extremely dynamic and
consumer capitalism in particular demands not
repression, but self fulfillment and immediate

Many histories of the sixties describe the
relationship between business and the
counterculture as a process of gradual co-optation
as capitalism cynically created an ersatz version of
the authentically rebellious youth movement. Abe
Peck, for instance, has defined the era as "from
counterculture to over-the-counter culture," citing
Columbia Records’ infamous advertising
campaign, "But the Man canˆÒt bust our
music."[1] As Frank shows, though, the story is not
so one-directional. Instead, key elements within
American business, notably advertising, had begun
formulating their own critique of the staid post-
World War II business culture several years before
the development of the counterculture. In
significant ways this emergent business culture
articulated the same anxieties that would motivate
the counterculture: fear of conformity and
alienation and, ironically, revulsion at the
manipulation of consumerism.

Advertising in the fifties emphasized images
of conformity and complacency. As articulated by
such influential figures as David Ogilvy and Rosser
Reeves, the philosophy of advertising aimed at a
mass audience which was to be reached through
constant repetition of a single, simple message.
Images focused on happy families living in
suburban bliss. Underlying this attitude was a
fundamental lack of respect for the intelligence of
the consumer. As Frank says of the fifties, "Never
has advertising been so unwilling to acknowledge
the myriad petty frustrations, the anger, the fear
that make up so much of daily existence,
consuming and otherwise. Never has it insisted so
dogmatically on such an abstractly glowing vision
of American life. And never has it been so
vulnerable to mockery" (p. 48).

The mass society of the fifties, of which
advertising was only one example, did not go
unchallenged. A number of critics, such as David
Riesman, William Whyte, John Kenneth Galbraith
and Vance Packard, expressed dissatisfaction with
the sterility of American culture and the
manipulative nature of consumerism. And, as
Frank argues, these criticisms found sympathizers
within the advertising industry itself, where some
were chafing at the restrictions of the dominant
Ogilvy-Reeves philosophy. Fueled by people like
Bill Bernbach, Howard Gossage, Jerry Della
Femina and George Lois, a creative rebellion in
advertising developed in the early sixties
challenging the vision proferred by advertisers in
the previous decade. "But the ads of the creative
revolution not only differed from those of the gray
flannel past," Frank argues, "they were openly at
war with their predecessors. What distinguished
the advertising of the 1960s was its
acknowledgement of and even sympathy with the
mass society critique.... It deftly punctured
advertisingˆÒs too-rosy picture of American life
and openly admitted that consuming was not the
wonder-world it was cracked up to be.... (I)n the
sixties, advertising actively compared a new, hip
consumerism to an older capitalist ideology and
left the latter permanently discredited" (p. 54).
The philosophy of the creative revolution stressed
the consumerˆÒs intelligence, the fact that both
advertiser and consumer realized the manipulative
and depersonalizing nature of mass society. Thus
was created what Frank labels "hip consumerism."
Ads for Volkswagen, for example, deliberately
flaunted its lack of style change as an attack on the
auto industryˆÒs policy of planned obsolescence.

Beginning in the early sixties, the creative
revolution increasingly identified itself with youth.
As Frank says, this focus only partly derived from
an attempt to capture the youth market. More
importantly, he argues, "youth" symbolized an
attitude, a break with the old patterns of
conformity, an emphasis on the new and exciting.
Therefore the image of youth could be applied to a
variety of products not necessarily aimed at young
people. Consumers were invited to join the Pepsi
Generation, for instance, if they were willing to
"think young."

Stressing youth as a form of rebellion
against the conservatism of the old order,
advertisers of the creative revolution viewed the
counterculture that began to emerge in the second
half of the decade with sympathy. They adopted
many of the trappings of the counterculture:
psychedelic graphics, rock music and hip fashions.
And if this vision of the counterculture remained
superficial and unconvincing to those actually
involved in the youth culture (as it did), that was
all right with the advertisers because young people
were not necessarily the primary intended
audience. After all, they did not have to be told to
"think young."

A similar process also occurred in the
menˆÒs clothing industry with the "Peacock
Revolution." MenˆÒs fashion, which had
remained virtually unchanged for decades, began
to change profoundly in the early sixties. As Frank
says, "The garment industry threw itself headlong
into revolution for reasons of its own: the
counterculture merely happened along at precisely
the right time with what the industry believed to be
the right attitudes toward clothing and the right
palate of looks" (p. 186). By 1967, these
tendencies had coalesced into an archetypal
character, "The Rebel," whose sartorial choices
symbolized his resistance to conformity. Once
again, images of youth and counterculture were
used to target an audience that was neither youthful
nor countercultural.

As Frank recognizes, in many ways this
work is marked by an old-fashioned sensibility.
Recent scholarship has tended to focus (perhaps
too much) on resistance to capitalist culture
industries, showing how people appropriate the
messages of these institutions to serve their
individual or group needs. By focusing on culture
producers rather than consumers, Frank not only
restores a needed emphasis on the role of power in
cultural discourse, but provides a fascinating look
at "the creators of mass culture, a group as playful
and even as subversive in their own way as the
heroic consumers who are the focus of so much of
cultural studies today" (p. x).

The development of hip consumerism, then,
is the story of the adaptability of consumer
capitalism. Recognizing the validity of critiques of
fiftiesˆÒ mass society, representatives of the
advertising and fashion industries sought to speak
to those who felt alienated, who craved
authenticity. Industry representatives, particularly
younger people dissatisfied with the bureaucratic
and creative strictures on their work, articulated
their own variation on the frustrations of living in a
consumer society. But in this view, the solution to
such problems lay in increased consumption. And,
as Frank argues, in the period since the sixties, hip
consumerism has become the dominant ethos for
"transform(ing) alienation and despair into
consent" (p. 235).

portraying the sixties as a period of "fundamental
cultural confrontation.... (I)nstead...the
counterculture may be more accurately understood
as a stage in the development of the values of the
American middle class, a colorful installment in
the twentieth century drama of consumer
subjectivity" (p. 29). With its emphasis on selffulfillment
and immediate gratification, on the new
and revolutionary as opposed to the stodgy and
conformist, the counterculture did not need to be
co-opted. It was already firmly within the value
system of consumer capitalism. While this
argument is not necessarily new--it has been
variously made by such critics as Michael
Harrington and Christopher Lasch--it serves as a
useful corrective to more recent scholarship which
has tended to minimize the role of power in
cultural discourse. For one of the most significant
forms of hegemony wielded by the dominant
culture is the power to determine the nature of its
own countercultures. As Peter Fonda said in Easy
Rider, "We blew it."

[1]. Abe Peck, Uncovering the Sixties: The
Life and Times of the Underground Press, New
York: Pantheon, 1985, pp. 164-165

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