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
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.