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The Boston Phoenix Thomas Frank

"The Conquest of Cool."

By Linda Lowenthal

THE CONQUEST OF COOL, by Thomas Frank. University of Chicago Press, 272 pages, $22.95.

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  Anyone who's read Tom Frank's rants in the Chicago Reader or the Baffler, the cultural-criticism journal he edits, knows that the business of culture and the culture of business are his guiding obsessions. Specifically, it's the growing difficulty of telling the capitalists from the hipsters (and vice versa) that drives him nuts. Time cover stories about the "authenticity" of Pearl Jam, ads that use the words of William S. Burroughs and Gil Scott-Heron to sell overpriced running shoes, corporate whiz kids who fancy themselves edge-living revolutionaries -- these, Frank believes, are the scourges of an age in which rebellion is nothing but attitude, and attitude is the biggest commodity of all.

In The Conquest of Cool, Frank sets out to explain how we got this way. Not surprisingly, he finds the answer in the '60s, the decade whose countercultural standards no one has felt able to live up to since. But though his focus is on an advertising industry that perpetrated such absurdities as psychedelically garbed Campbell's Soup kids and ads for "feminine deodorant spray" picturing the product next to a FREEDOM NOW button, Frank sees something more than simple co-optation at work. He believes that advertising, and business in general, appropriated not just the trappings of the '60s youth culture but the countercultural idea itself -- the whole notion of defying convention and rebelling against conformity.

Indeed, Frank argues, the admen often beat the hippies to the punch. Long before the Summer of Love, Madison Avenue rebels were blasting holes in the advertising culture of the 1940s and '50s, when ads were produced according to rigid formulas that generated a fatuous, idealized vision of consumer life. The leaders of the "Creative Revolution" -- men like Jerry Della Femina, Bill Bernbach, George Lois, and Howard Gossage -- recognized that these ads undermined their own purpose by treating consumers like idiots. The revolutionaries' solution was to embrace the public's growing alienation in hip, humorous campaigns such as the one Bernbach's agency devised for Volkswagen, which openly mocked the puffery of the car culture and invited Americans to reject the hypocrisies of mass society by choosing this "ugly," "unfashionable" vehicle. As the creative style swept the industry, stifling professional hierarchies gave way to "fantasies of corporate antinomianism," with anarchism and client defiance the rule at all the hottest agencies. By the time the more familiar manifestations of the counterculture were ready to be co-opted, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was well on his way to becoming "the coolest guy on the commuter train."

The catch, of course, was that these ad campaigns proposed consumption itself as the answer to the problems of consumer society. Tired of looking like everyone else? Shop at Barney's, the store "where they think you're big enough to dress yourself." Had it with playing by the rules? Join the Dodge Rebellion. Sick of being lied to by some slick salesman? Buy from the folks who tell it to you straight. All the "petty tyrannies of economic life -- all the complaints about conformity, oppression, bureaucracy, meaninglessness, and the disappearance of individualism" -- were transformed into rationales for a hip new shopping strategy that marked the consumer as someone who was wise to the game. Best of all, this transformation of alienation into a sales pitch continually turned expressions of defiance into new standards of conformity that invited new gestures of rebellion-through-consumption.

Frank obviously did a lot of homework for this book, which is based on his dissertation, and the results are unfailingly readable. Still, the effect often seems flat compared with the best of the Baffler -- say, his prospectus for a parody company called "Consolidated Deviance" that dramatizes hilariously the same concept of hip rebelliousness as a cultural and economic "perpetual-motion machine." The strain to affect some semblance of scholarly detachment seems to have cramped his gleefully polemical style.

That's not really inappropriate, though, because the whole point is that there wasn't any big conspiracy. There didn't have to be. The counterculture, with its critique of a stultifying, rule-based mass society, was never really a threat to American capitalism but the single challenge with which it was best equipped to deal -- a set of demands the consumer society was actually capable of satisfying. This explains why the countercultural style, in the guise of hip, has lasted so long and spread so far: it has become "central to the way American capitalism [understands] itself and [explains] itself to the public."

The story of business culture's revolution in the '60s is one -- perhaps the only one -- that no one else has told about that decade. But it's surprising, and a little disconcerting, how much explanatory power that story holds for all Americans, especially for those of us who weren't there. Frank has finally figured out why it is that the '60s feel so much like our "temporal homeland," and why everything before then feels so impossibly long ago. It's not just because we're watching too much Nick at Nite, or because baby boomers control the media, or because the Rolling Stones apparently plan to tour until they're in wheelchairs. It's because when the business culture and the counterculture discovered each other, their romance gave birth to our "official ideology." We still pledge allegiance every time we try to break the rules.

Linda Lowenthal is a staff editor at the Boston Phoenix.

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