The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism

The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism

by Thomas Frank

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While the youth counterculture remains the most evocative and best-remembered symbol of the cultural ferment of the 1960s, the revolution that shook American business during those boom years has gone largely unremarked. In this fascinating and revealing study, Thomas Frank shows how the youthful revolutionaries were joined—and even anticipated —by such


While the youth counterculture remains the most evocative and best-remembered symbol of the cultural ferment of the 1960s, the revolution that shook American business during those boom years has gone largely unremarked. In this fascinating and revealing study, Thomas Frank shows how the youthful revolutionaries were joined—and even anticipated —by such unlikely allies as the advertising industry and the men's clothing business.

"[Thomas Frank is] perhaps the most provocative young cultural critic of the moment."—Gerald Marzorati, New York Times Book Review

"An indispensable survival guide for any modern consumer."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Frank makes an ironclad case not only that the advertising industry cunningly turned the countercultural rhetoric of revolution into a rallying cry to buy more stuff, but that the process itself actually predated any actual counterculture to exploit."—Geoff Pevere, Toronto Globe and Mail

"The Conquest of Cool helps us understand why, throughout the last third of the twentieth century, Americans have increasingly confused gentility with conformity, irony with protest, and an extended middle finger with a populist manifesto. . . . His voice is an exciting addition to the soporific public discourse of the late twentieth century."—T. J. Jackson Lears, In These Times

"An invaluable argument for anyone who has ever scoffed at hand-me-down counterculture from the '60s. A spirited and exhaustive analysis of the era's advertising."—Brad Wieners, Wired Magazine

"Tom Frank is . . . not only old-fashioned, he's anti-fashion, with a place in his heart for that ultimate social faux pas, leftist politics."—Roger Trilling, Details

Editorial Reviews

Tom Grimes
Superb and immensely readable. . . . With "The Conquest of Cool," Frank -- brilliant, excoriating and wickedly funny -- assumes the mantle of the preeminent cultural critic of his generation. -- Houston Chronicle
Frank, editor-in-chief of cultural criticism journal , shows how the youth counterculture of the 1960s was encouraged and even anticipated by the advertising and fashion industries. He presents a history of advertising as well as commentary on the growth of a peculiarly American sensibility, the pervasive co-optation that defines today's hip commercial culture. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Brad Wieners
An invaluable argument for anyone who has ever scoffed at hand-me-down counterculture from the '60s. . . .Further serves to inoculate audiences tot he hip capitalizm that's everywhere including these pages today. -- Wired Magazine
Frank is a leading en-X cynic. His favorite target: how corporate America forces conformity in the masses.
Newsweek: 100 Americans for the Next Century
Abe Peck
A lucid history of how long-haired, bell bottomed admen replaced rule-laden repetition adn simple selling propositions with clever, unpredictable approaches.
Chicago Tribune

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The Conquest of Cool

Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism

By Thomas Frank

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-25991-9

Chapter One

Why do this kind of advertising if not to incite people to riot?-Nike
copywriter, 1996

of commerce and counterculture

For as long as America is torn by culture wars, the 1960s will remain the
historical terrain of conflict. Although popular memories of that era are
increasingly vague and generalized-the stuff of classic rock radio and
commemorative television replayings of the 1968 Chicago riot footage-we
understand "the sixties" almost instinctively as the decade of the big
change, the birthplace of our own culture, the homeland of hip, an era of
which the tastes and discoveries and passions, however obscure their
origins, have somehow determined the world in which we are condemned to

For many, the world with which "the sixties" left us is a distinctly
unhappy one. While acknowledging the successes of the civil rights and
antiwar movements, scholarly accounts of the decade, bearing titles like
Coming Apart and The Unraveling of America, generally depict the sixties
as a ten-year fall from grace, theloss of a golden age of consensus, the
end of an edenic epoch of shared values and safe centrism. This vision of
social decline, though, is positively rosy compared with the
fire-breathing historical accusations of more recent years. For Allan
Bloom, recounting with still-raw bitterness in his best-selling The
Closing of the American Mind
the student uprising and the faculty
capitulation at Cornell in 1969, the misdeeds of the campus New Left were
an intellectual catastrophe comparable only with the experiences of German
professors under the Nazis. "So far as universities are concerned," he
writes in his chapter entitled, "The Sixties," "I know of nothing positive
coming from that period; it was an unmitigated disaster for them." Lines
like "Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same,"
and Bloom's characterization of Cornell's then-president as "of the moral
stamp of those who were angry with Poland for resisting Hitler because
this precipitated the war," constituted for several years the high
watermark of anti-sixties bluster. But later texts topped even this.

By 1996 it had become fashionable to extend the blame for unhappy events
in the academy that Bloom heaped on "the sixties" to the demise of
"civility" and, taking off from there, for virtually everything that could
be said to be wrong about America generally. For Robert Bork, "the
sixties" accomplished nothing less than sending America Slouching Towards
thanks to the decade's "revolutionary nihilism" and the craven
"Establishment's surrender," cultural radicals "and their ideology are all
around us now" (a fantasy of defeat which, although Bork doesn't seem to
realize it, rephrases Jerry Rubin's 1971 fantasy of revolution, We Are
). Political figures on the right, waxing triumphal in the
aftermath of the 1994 elections, also identify "the sixties," a term which
they use interchangeably with "the counterculture," as the source of every
imaginable species of the social blight from which they have undertaken to
rescue the nation. Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts the fall from
grace directly, exhorting readers of a recent volume of conservative
writing to "remember your boomer childhood in the towns and suburbs" when
"you were safe" and "the cities were better," back before "society
strained and cracked," in the storms of sixties selfishness. Former
history professor Newt Gingrich is the most assiduous and prominent
antagonist of "the sixties," imagining it as a time of "countercultural
McGoverniks," whom he holds responsible not only for the demise of
traditional values and the various deeds of the New Left, but (illogically
and anachronistically) for the hated policies of the Great Society as
well. Journalist Fred Barnes outlines a "theory of American history"
related to him by Gingrich

in which the 1960s represent a crucial break, "a discontinuity." From
1607 down till 1965, "there is a core pattern to American history.
Here's how we did it until the Great Society messed everything up: don't
work, don't eat; your salvation is spiritual; the government by
definition can't save you; governments are into maintenance and all good
reforms are into transformation." Then, "from 1965 to 1994, we did
strange and weird things as a country. Now we're done with that and we
have to recover. The counterculture is a momentary aberration in
American history that will be looked back upon as a quaint period of
Bohemianism brought to the national elite."

The conservatives' version of "the sixties" is not without interest,
particularly when it is an account of a given person's revulsion from the
culture of an era. Their usefulness as history, however, is undermined by
their insistence on understanding "the sixties" as a causal force in and
of itself and their curious blurring of the lines between various
historical actors: counterculture equals Great Society equals New Left
equals "the sixties generation," all of them driven by some mysterious
impulse to tear down Western Civilization. Bork is particularly given to
such slipshod historiography, imagining at one point that the sixties
won't even stay put in the 1960s. "It was a malignant decade," he writes,
"that, after a fifteen-year remission, returned in the 1980s to
metastasize more devastatingly throughout our culture than it had in the
Sixties, not with tumult but quietly, in the moral and political
assumptions of those who now control and guide our major cultural
institutions." The closest Bork, Bloom, Gingrich, and their colleagues
will come to explanations is to revive one of several creaking devices:
the sixties as a moral drama of millennialist utopians attempting to work
their starry-eyed will in the real world, the sixties as a time of
excessive affluence, the sixties as a time of imbalance in the eternal war
between the generations, or the sixties as the fault of Dr. Spock, who
persuaded American parents in the lost fifties to pamper their children

Despite its shortcomings, the conservatives' vision of
sixties-as-catastrophe has achieved a certain popular success. Both
Bloom's and Bork's books were best-sellers. And a mere mention of hippies
or "the sixties" is capable of arousing in some quarters an astonishing
amount of rage against what many still imagine to have been an era of
cultural treason. In the white suburban Midwest, one happens so frequently
across declarations of sixties- and hippie-hatred that the posture begins
to seem a sort of historiographical prerequisite to being middle class and
of a certain age; in the nation's politics, sixties- and hippie-bashing
remains a trump card only slightly less effective than red-baiting was in
earlier times. One bit of political ephemera that darkened a 1996
congressional race in south Chicago managed to appeal to both hatreds at
once, tarring a Democratic candidate as the nephew of a bona fide
communist and the choice of the still-hated California hippies,
representatives of whom (including one photograph of Ken Kesey's famous
bus, "Further") are pictured protesting, tripping, dancing, and carrying
signs for the Democrat in question.

In mass culture, dark images of the treason and excess of the 1960s are
not difficult to find. The fable of the doubly-victimized soldiers in
Vietnam, betrayed first by liberals and doves in government and then spat
upon by members of the indistinguishable New Left/Counterculture has been
elevated to cultural archetype by the Rambo movies and has since become
such a routine trope that its invocation-and the resulting
outrage-requires only the mouthing of a few standard references. The
exceedingly successful 1994 movie Forrest Gump transformed into archetype
the rest of the conservatives' understanding of the decade, depicting
youth movements of the sixties in a particularly malevolent light and
their leaders (a demagogue modeled on Abbie Hoffman, a sinister group of
Black Panthers, and an SDS commissar who is attired, after Bloom's
interpretation, in a Nazi tunic) as diabolical charlatans, architects of a
national madness from which the movie's characters only recover under the
benevolent presidency of Ronald Reagan.

But stay tuned for just a moment longer and a different myth of the
counterculture and its meaning crosses the screen. Regardless of the
tastes of Republican leaders, rebel youth culture remains the cultural
mode of the corporate moment, used to promote not only specific products
but the general idea of life in the cyber-revolution. Commercial fantasies
of rebellion, liberation, and outright "revolution" against the
stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace almost to the point of
invisibility in advertising, movies, and television programming. For some,
Ken Kesey's parti-colored bus may be a hideous reminder of national
unraveling, but for Coca-Cola it seemed a perfect promotional instrument
for its "Fruitopia" line, and the company has proceeded to send replicas
of the bus around the country to generate interest in the
counterculturally themed beverage. Nike shoes are sold to the
accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs and songs by The
Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron ("the revolution will not be
televised"); peace symbols decorate a line of cigarettes manufactured by
R. J. Reynolds and the walls and windows of Starbucks coffee shops
nationwide; the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as
devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category
sprectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves. The
music industry continues to rejuvenate itself with the periodic discovery
of new and evermore subversive youth movements and our televisual
marketplace is a 24-hour carnival, a showplace of transgression and
inversion of values, of humiliated patriarchs and shocked puritans, of
screaming guitars and concupiscent youth, of fashions that are uniformly
defiant, of cars that violate convention and shoes that let us be us. A
host of self-designated "corporate revolutionaries," outlining the
accelerated new capitalist order in magazines like Wired and Fast Company,
gravitate naturally to the imagery of rebel youth culture to dramatize
their own insurgent vision. This version of the countercultural myth is so
pervasive that it appears even in the very places where the historical
counterculture is being maligned. Just as Newt Gingrich hails an
individualistic "revolution" while tirading against the counterculture,
Forrest Gump features a soundtrack of rock 'n' roll music, John Lennon and
Elvis Presley appearing in their usual roles as folk heroes, and two
carnivalesque episodes in which Gump meets heads of state, avails himself
grotesquely of their official generosity (consuming fifteen bottles of
White House soda in one scene), and confides to them the tribulations of
his nether regions. He even bares his ass to Lyndon Johnson, perhaps the
ultimate countercultural gesture.

However the conservatives may froth, this second myth comes much closer to
what academics and responsible writers accept as the standard account of
the decade. Mainstream culture was tepid, mechanical, and uniform; the
revolt of the young against it was a joyous and even a glorious cultural
flowering, though it quickly became mainstream itself. Rick Perlstein has
summarized this standard version of what went on in the sixties as the
"declension hypothesis," a tale in which, "as the Fifties grayly droned
on, springs of contrarian sentiment began bubbling into the best minds of
a generation raised in unprecedented prosperity but well versed in the
existential subversions of the Beats and Mad magazine." The story ends
with the noble idealism of the New Left in ruins and the counterculture
sold out to Hollywood and the television networks.

So natural has this standard version of the countercultural myth come to
seem that it required little explanation when, on the twenty-fifth
anniversary of the historical counterculture's greatest triumph, a group
of cultural speculators and commercial backers (Pepsi-Cola prominent among
them) joined forces to put on a second Woodstock. But this time the
commercial overtones were just a little too pronounced, and journalists
rained down abuse on the venture-not because it threatened "traditional
values" but because it defiled the memory of the apotheosized original.
Woodstock II was said to be a simple act of exploitation, a degraded
carnival of corporate logos, endorsements, and product-placement while the
1969 festival was sentimentally recalled as an event of youthful innocence
and idealistic glory.

Conflicting though they may seem, the two stories of sixties culture agree
on a number of basic points. Both assume quite naturally that the
counterculture was what it said it was; that is, a fundamental opponent of
the capitalist order. Both foes and partisans assume, further, that the
counterculture is the appropriate symbol-if not the actual historical
cause-for the big cultural shifts that transformed the United States and
that permanently rearranged Americans' cultural priorities. They also
agree that these changes constituted a radical break or rupture with
existing American mores, that they were just as transgressive and as
menacing and as revolutionary as countercultural participants believed
them to be. More crucial for our purposes here, all sixties narratives
place the stories of the groups that are believed to have been so
transgressive and revolutionary at their center; American business culture
is thought to have been peripheral, if it's mentioned at all. Other than
the occasional purveyor of stereotype and conspiracy theory, virtually
nobody has shown much interest in telling the story of the executives or
suburbanites who awoke one day to find their authority challenged and
paradigms problematized. And whether the narrators of the sixties story
are conservatives or radicals, they tend to assume that business
represented a static, unchanging body of faiths, goals, and practices, a
background of muted, uniform gray against which the counterculture went
through its colorful chapters.

But the actual story is quite a bit messier. The cultural changes that
would become identified as "counterculture" began well before 1960, with
roots deep in bohemian and romantic thought, and the era of upheaval
persisted long after 1970 rolled around. And while nearly every account of
the decade's youth culture describes it as a reaction to the stultifying
economic and cultural environment of the postwar years, almost none have
noted how that context-the world of business and of middle-class mores-was
itself changing during the 1960s. The 1960s was the era of Vietnam, but it
was also the high watermark of American prosperity and a time of fantastic
ferment in managerial thought and corporate practice.


Excerpted from The Conquest of Cool
by Thomas Frank
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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