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Book Review: the conquest of cool

By Arkady in News
Mon Jul 03, 2000 at 11:31:12 PM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

I finished reading this book last week, and I was very impressed by it. I think it warrants a serious reading by anyone interested in modern culture and the place of business, particularly very large business, in it. I was thinking about Neuromancer's post that morning and decided that I'd try to share some thoughts on this work with the rest of you.

Now, I haven't written a book report in many years, so you folks who are still in school, or who are more recently graduated, be kind, OK? I'm trying to remember a rhetorical style I've been consciously avoiding for almost 10 years here ... ;-)

the conquest of cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism
Thomas Frank
1997, The University of Chicago Press

To begin, I should put in a bit about the author. Thomas Frank is best known to me as the editor-in-chief of The Baffler, a whenever-we-get-the-next-issue-out (but roughly quarterly) journal of what is commonly called cultural criticism. In the case of The Baffler, I think it might be more appropriate to call what they do Anthropology with an Attitude.

Frank first sets out what could be called the Standard Model of Co-Optation, which is that business in the late Sixties and continuing latched onto the then-going youth movement and twisted it to their own cynical ends. This model claims, by implication, that this act of co-optation was a purely conscious and cynical act on the part of business and advertisers to cash in on what they saw as a major trend. Frank then moves into his case, which is that the co-optation of youth was already a feature of cutting-edge advertising back into the late Fifties and, it seems, itself had a not insignificant part in the creation of the Sixties youth movement as a popular phenomenon.

That's where the book starts to get genuinely complicated and, naturally, quite fascinating. Frank did a considerable amount of research for this, largely in the archives of various advertising agencies and trade magazines. The case depends on the aesthetics and attitude of some early advertising campaigns (particularly for Volkswagon and Volvo) and on the descriptive writing about these campaigns in the advertising journals.

It's not hard to see that, if the Volkswagon and Volvo campaigns can be shown to be using the cynicism and revolutionary posturings which are the hallmark of co-optation advertising today, that his case is made, since both ad campaigns began in the early Sixties. Since this places them well before any appearance of the youth movement in the popular press, they could not have been influenced by that movement. And he puts forth a very convincing argument, particularly with the comparisons between these early campaigns and the later ad style of the American car companies.

But his case isn't entirely based on inference. The ad industry trade magazines from the late Fifties through the Sixties were the ground for a schism in the industry. The traditional agencies were losing their design staff to new "Creative" agencies which were, it seems, springing up everywhere at the time and the Creative style was challenging the traditional "Agency Man" style from decades past. The Volkswagon and Volvo campaigns he discusses are examples of the Creative agencies' new "We all know this is an ad, and isn't it funny?" style, which was becoming popular enough to start winning the big clients like VW.

Frank quotes many sources from the trade press with which he shows that the Creative advertisers saw the burgeoning youth movement of the late Sixties as a natural ally and fellow-traveller in their conflict with the more traditional business style. Thus, in their minds, it was not a case of co-opting the youth of the time but a moving together of two until-then distinct social trends.

I found the book to be very well researched and thought out. His case makes sense and he presents it extremely convincingly. His thesis casts modern advertising and such "brand" entities as MTV into a new and much more revealing light.

So, how do we hold a discussion on a book review? Mostly, I'd like to suggest that you all read the book and, if you find it interesting, check out The Baffler as well (I'n not associated with them in any way except as a subscriber ... ;-). If any of you have already read the book, of course, I'd love to see your thoughts on it here.


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Book Review: the conquest of cool | 11 comments (11 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Good writeup. (none / 0) (#1)
by dhelder on Mon Jul 03, 2000 at 10:34:59 PM EST

I've read the book too and liked it quite a bit. The review summarizes the book well.

Some of the plates in the book show early-60's Pepsi ads where happy, Pepsi-drinking youth are participating in "extreme sports" like watersking and motorcycling. Today it's bungee jumping and rock-climbing. Nothing's changed much.

It's also interesting to see that 60's ads were often ironic and self-referential -- it's not a recent trend.

Just wondering (none / 0) (#2)
by mattc on Tue Jul 04, 2000 at 12:49:04 AM EST

What were the Volkswagen and Volvo campaigns about?

Re: Just wondering (4.50 / 2) (#3)
by Arkady on Tue Jul 04, 2000 at 04:48:33 AM EST

The primary target of both campaigns was the faddish nature of American car manufacturers, poking snide fun at planned obsolesence and faddishness in general. There are some quite funny plates of magazine ads.

The first ad in the VW campaign (in 1961) features a car-show like photo of a VW bug in spotlights over the caption "The '51 '52 '53 '54 '55 '56 '57 '58 '59 '60 '61 Volkswagen." A later one (from 1966) shows a line of VW bugs over the caption "Has the Volkswagen fad died out?" with tis ironic comment in the text below:

[When you drive the latest fad to a party, and find 2 more fads there ahead of you, it catches you off your avante-garde.]

A Volvo ad from 1967 features a woman leaning against a car made of paper which looks like your stock American car of the time, with big tailfins of course, over the line "The Paper Car! A logical next step in a continuing program of planned obsolescence." Another from 1966 shows a man looking into a dealership covered with exciting signs touting the latest models and the headline "Your car is out of style. Again."

These ads demonstrate a definite appeal to cynicism as their main feature. The pitch isn't straightforward as an attempt to make you buy; it's more aimed with a wink towards the readers developing cynicism with advertising itself.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

[ Parent ]
Re: Just wondering (2.00 / 1) (#6)
by 0xdeadbeef on Tue Jul 04, 2000 at 07:17:18 PM EST

Wow. Is the book actually critical of this advertising style? I wish it were more common today, as I prefer sincere cynicism over the sort of lame self-deprecating cynicism of modern commercials, like those Sprite "obey your thirst" commercials, or those Nike "it's got to be the shoes" commercials. Those Volkswagen ads are actually criticising other cars, and the faddish nature of their marketing style. I sure wish a clothing manufacturer would have the balls to attack the heavily branded clothing industry in a similar fashion.

[ Parent ]
Re: Just wondering (none / 0) (#7)
by Arkady on Tue Jul 04, 2000 at 07:59:38 PM EST

The main criticism, I think, would be the way that the wink is used to obscure the other assumptions in the ad. The goal is still to create a desire in the reader and to get them to buy something; only the style has changed. If you find it interesting, I highly recommend reading the book.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

[ Parent ]
this was noted back in the 70's (4.00 / 2) (#4)
by Anonymous Hero on Tue Jul 04, 2000 at 10:54:42 AM EST

This idea of commodification of youthful rebelion was pretty strongly implied by many of the icons of the punk movement back in the mid 70's. Some of them hated it, some of them stated bluntly that it was happening and that they were going to do very nicely out of it while it lasted. It probably dates back to slashed sleeved tunics of the middle-ages or before ("...No mum, don't sew up those rips, I like 'em..."). Still I suppose an academic tome puts the idea on the intellectual map.

Re: this was noted back in the 70's (none / 0) (#5)
by Arkady on Tue Jul 04, 2000 at 04:22:54 PM EST

That's sort of the point here: the commodification pre-dates "alternative" and metal and punk. It, in fact, was an important factor in the creation of the Sixties youth movement and of many later "subculture"s.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

[ Parent ]
Re: this was noted back in the 70's (none / 0) (#8)
by Anonymous Hero on Wed Jul 05, 2000 at 05:54:55 AM EST

However, what I was trying to get at, is that people have been well aware of this commodification since before this book. I reached sentience in the mid-70's so the first people I heard airing the idea were from that era, but I'm sure that the more cynical/idealistic/insiders have been telling the public this since the year dot (TM Sun).

[ Parent ]
Interesting thought (none / 0) (#9)
by Neuromancer on Wed Jul 05, 2000 at 10:51:03 AM EST

And true too. Youth think that they are "different" and "rebellious," when really they are just joining in into the usual mindtrap for the mindless. I think that part of it is that they WANT to be trapped like that. Being fairly young myself, I get a first hand look at it every day, and it depresses me madly. At any rate, it's funny to see that the true counter-culture youth are usually the most open-minded and intelligent. Go to any indie punk show vs a Brittney Spears concert and look at the differences in the kids (yeah, the punk kids are scarier, but they are my crowd, and I really think that on average they tend to me more intelligent and open minded). Anyways, just a few thoughts. Youth really shoot themselves in the foot, but I think that many adults do these days too. I think that it was only a matter or time before corporations owned the minds of the masses (Bill Gates programs everything, doesn't he? Budwieser is the greatest beer in the world! And SUV's are good for your traditional family.)

I think that I shall have to pick up a copy for myself.

Re: Interesting thought (none / 0) (#10)
by caliban on Wed Jul 05, 2000 at 11:49:36 AM EST

here's what they sell at Brittney Spears concerts

In 2000, it isn't exactly news that pop stars and big business are often in bed with each other; and it has grown a bit tiresome to hear musicians signed to major record companies -- and critics who work for major publications -- carp about corporate involvement tainting art. Still, there was something disturbing about watching Spears' smiling images promote milk and Polaroid cameras on a huge stage curtain and screen that stared out at the audience for a good half-hour before the star herself materialized
En route to the parking lot, young and old fans were handed samples of hair and skin products from Clairol Herbal Essence, yet another sponsor of Spears' tour. Hit me one more time, indeed.
(from a pretty scathing review )

[ Parent ]
Suggested reading (none / 0) (#11)
by Anonymous Hero on Wed Jul 05, 2000 at 02:47:08 PM EST

Another good book on advertising that some of you might like is Jean Kilbourne's Deadly Persuasion. This book is targeted mostly at women and young girls, but raises many valid points about advertising, and specifically, about advertisers opinion of the masses. Quite disturbing actually...

Book Review: the conquest of cool | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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