The Magazine

THE REBEL IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT

Jan 19, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 18 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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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."