The Magazine

THE REBEL IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT

Jan 19, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 18 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts




Thomas Frank

 

The Conquest of Cool

 

University of Chicago Press, 287 pp.,

 

$ 22.95

 

Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, eds.

 

Commodify Your Dissent

The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age, Salvos from the Baffler

 

Norton, 288 pp., $ 15


Advertising came of age in the 1960s, the decade of Marshall McLuhan, psychedelia, Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, flower power -- and color TV. Surveys at mid-decade showed the typical American exposed to nearly sixteen hundred ads a day.


Of course, more ads meant more clutter. And other surveys at the time revealed that most commercial messages -- perhaps 80 percent -- were scarcely noticed, prompting Bill Bernbach, one of the leading admen of his generation, to remark: "It's not that we're loved; we're not even hated. They ignore us."


In fact, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the advertising business was scrutinized to a degree unmatched before or since. Authors, politicians, comedians, Mad magazine: Everybody took shots at Madison Avenue. Its harshest critics saw advertising as a poisonous force promoting what Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing for Esquire, called a "contemporary orgy of consumer goods," more "gadgets and gimmicks to overwhelm our bodies and distract our minds." The most famous attack came from the late Vance Packard. His 1957 bestseller The Hidden Persuaders argued that while most advertisers were still "straightforward" and "vital" for economic prosperity, there were nefarious others in the field who were turning to "subterranean operations": sinister forays into mass brainwashing that exploited inner fears and "subconscious needs."


And yet, as Thomas Frank points out in The Conquest of Cool, his new study of the culture of advertising, Packard's book was part of a wider "mass society critique" that included the 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and the 1956 bestseller The Organization Man by Fortune magazine's William Whyte. In varying ways, these and other popular books argued that bigness, bureaucratization, mass regimentation, and what Whyte called "group-thought" were threatening the traditions of individualism and innovation long prized in America.


The era's liveliest debates about advertising's methods and aims took place within the industry itself. On one side stood Rosser Reeves, head of the Ted Bates agency, and author of the 1960 Reality in Advertising. For Reeves, advertising wasn't art -- and art critics like Bernard Berenson weren't typical consumers. The best ads, following certain "immutable rules," were simple, repetitive, and hard to forget. The adman's sole, unglamorous role was to "get a message into the heads of as many people as possible at the lowest possible cost."


Bill Bernbach believed otherwise. Modern consumers, barraged with ads, were fed up with thumping slogans and blunt claims. Wary now of advertising's motives and stratagems, they warmed to memorable displays of ingenuity and wit. Bernbach's freespirited firm, Doyle Dane Bernbach, got Avis to concede " We're Only No. 2" and reminded New Yorkers "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real Jewish Rye."


Even more famous was DDB's long-running Volkswagen campaign. The firm didn't puff the Beetle as a sporty, sexy status symbol, but chose instead a " minimalist" approach that wryly touted the car's homely practicality while subtly flattering its buyers. Bug owners were clever spenders, the ads implied, bound to save a bundle on repair bills and fuel. But they were also hip, protesting through their purchase of a VW the "mass society" by rejecting Detroit's gaudy tailfins and flashy claims.


As the sixties progressed, Bernbach's "Creative Revolution" won the day. Ad shops everywhere mimicked the prize-winning "Bernbach look," and -- as Frank documents so well -- turned increasingly to "countercultural language and imagery." Ads for all sorts of products now routinely extolled protest, rebellion, and youth -- or, more precisely, Frank writes, "what admen felt was the young's most important characteristic as consumers," their "desire for immediate gratification, their craving for the new." Thus Pepsi urged its drinkers to "Think Young" and to "Come Alive!" while 7-Up, in turn, became " Wet and Wild," and the "Uncola" as well -- no mere mixer but the beverage for those defying "established cola tastes." Booth's Gin, meanwhile, ran one print campaign headed "I hate conformity because . . ." and facetiously urged readers to "tell us your beef against society in twenty-five words or less."


According to Frank, the trend was especially clear among makers of menswear. One shirt company hoped that its current offerings would "destroy our image"; a knitwear firm was simply "Revolutionizing It!" as its print ads proclaimed. But car companies also got cool in a big way. Oldsmobiles became, of course, "Youngmobiles." American Motors now sold "The Rebel," and Dodge -- promoting " The Dodge Rebellion" added models called "Challenger" and "Swinger 340" to its line. Frank notes that one Challenger ad showed its hip driver harassed by "an overweight policeman with a stage-Southern accent," a "stock buffoon borrowed from Easy Rider and bent on repressing the very brand of car being advertised."


Meanwhile, product spokesmen changed. In the sixties, "besuited men of order" gave way to "rule breakers" and "deviants instead of conformists." " Ubiquitous" ads for Foster Grant sunglasses, for example, "encouraged consumers to imagine themselves as all manner of stylish lawbreakers." Even the "Frito Bandito" turned up, pilfering bags of corn chips "from their rightful owners."


Frank contends that these trends bloomed first because men like Bernbach felt stifled by stale and predictable strategies. Others in the industry -- at least on the "creative end" -- saw themselves as artists at heart, frustrated bohemians intuitively drawn to the celebration of unconventional behavior and nonconformity. Big advertising's big clients embraced such self- consciously hip themes because they were aimed largely, although by no means exclusively, at "the giant youth market." But Frank also argues that a popularized ideology built largely on the notion of constant and radical change -- of "liberation and continual transgression" -- is crucial "in that continual cycling of new stuff you need for a consumer society."


Frank is the editor of the Baffler, an enjoyably cranky journal started in 1988 (an anthology of its essays appeared last year, entitled Commodify Your Dissent). Thus, though he clearly admires the professional skills of Bernbach and others in the field, Frank also clearly, writing from the left, scorns mass advertising for abetting the "domination" of American life by " business." In Frank's view, manufacturers and merchandisers have simply "co- opted" this "language and imagery" of dissent for their own profit-making ends.


As a result, too many Americans now appear too willing to believe that deep human needs can be satisfied through the constant accumulation of new-but- disposable goods: cars, computers, soft drinks, sports shoes -- everything from razor blades to pork rinds -- that are perpetually pitched as daring, vaguely dangerous, cool. For Frank, the worst fears of Schlesinger and Packard have come true -- and, in the weirdest possible way, somehow precisely because of their critique. Consumption is king, and high-tech advertising is craftier and more intrusive than ever before. There's a direct line of descent from Bernbach's Volkswagen ads to, say, Details magazine, which in Frank's view is one long advertisement for "hip consumerism" and " revolution through style." Details, he has observed elsewhere, "presents nonconformity as a consumer posture." It "goes out of its way to imply that buying certain products is an act of true subversiveness."


The Conquest of Cool is marked by a certain dogged repetitiveness -- an almost exhaustive marshaling of proof -- that is perhaps owed to its start as a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago. At times, Frank overstates his case, leaving the impression that virtually everything sold in the sixties was first plugged as some hip artifact, and that big firms pumped the bulk of their ad budgets into huge countercultural-theme campaigns that extolled youth. But of course huge companies with diverse product lines have long sought connection with varying constituencies. Chrysler, for example, manufactured lots of boxy Dodge Darts during that turbulent decade, and, one assumes, didn't use some hip leitmotif to sing the car's dull but durable virtues. And even while pressing drivers to join "the Dodge Rebellion," Chrysler continued to sponsor Bob Hope's television shows, linking itself with a mainstream performer hardly at odds with "the silent majority."


Still, Frank has produced a refreshingly spirited book and some useful social history. He is right to note that much of what we have been taught to think of as "the sixties" in fact started in the fifties, its mental atmosphere glimpsed in the bestsellers by Packard, Wilson, and Whyte. He is also right to accept the premise that American culture is now Pop Culture -- or even Pulp Culture -- and that both free speech and a free market did much to democratize values and attitudes that previous generations would have largely dismissed as pernicious or infantile. And he is probably very close to the mark when he declares that "the counterculture," broadly defined, has become "a more or less permanent part of the American scene, a symbolic and musical language for the endless cycles of rebellion and transgression that make up so much of our mass culture."


Thus in films, advertisements, and elsewhere, one still routinely sees "the figure of the cultural rebel, the defiant individualist," whether he is "an athlete decked out in mohawk and multiple-pierced ears, a policeman who plays by his own rules," or "a soldier of fortune with explosive bow and arrow, a longhaired alienated cowboy gunning down square cowboys, or a rock star in leather jacket and sunglasses." This figure not only "rules supreme" in advertising, but has become "the paramount cliche of our popular entertainment, the preeminent symbol of the system he is supposed to be subverting."


One also recognizes the "central-casting prudes and squares" -- the schoolteachers, old folks, evangelical preachers, and pompous do-gooders -- " against whom contemporary advertising, rock stars, and artists routinely cast themselves." It is absurd, of course, the endless parade of these stereotypical sitting ducks. But, as Frank writes, such cliches thrive "on some cultural logic of their own: Rebellion is both the high- and mass- cultural motif of the age; order is its great bogeyman."


And after reading The Conquest of Cool, it's hard not to conclude that the folks who brought you Mr. Clean and the Marlboro Man helped bring the Cultural Revolution too.




Brian Murray teaches at Loyola College in Baltimore.