The Magazine

THE REBEL IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT

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