How big business and savvy marketing have reinvented coolness
Anybody who watches TV these days knows about the earth-shattering cultural change that's underway. Those who are optimistic about this shift argue that once we all own high-capacity computers, society will become radically decentralized and the nightmares of authoritarian government and soulless mass society, along with the age-old curse of elitism, will be ended for good. But those who are less sanguine see the big change as essentially negative. The sky really is falling, they rail, and civilization is wandering into a cultural catastrophe.
In part, of course, this is a predictable end-of-the-century sentiment, common to every year cursed with a nine as its third digit. But it's also a very real constellation of fears. As a culture, we've lost the ability to tell what's important and what's trivial. And nothing brings it home more concretely than the rise of the "culture trust," the group of media-behemoths like Time Warner, Geffen, Disney, and Westinghouse that have fashioned an industrial entertainment monopoly. What's happening looks like an almost literal realization of previous generations' fears of a totalitarian mass society: ever fewer voices talking to an ever larger and an ever more passive audience.
Both cyber-ecstatics and doomsayers are talking about the same larger phenomenon: the so-called information revolution and the unparalleled rise of corporate power that it seems to be fueling. The defining fact of American life in the 1990s is its complete reorganization around the needs of corporations. The world of business, it seems, is becoming the world, period. The market is politics, the office is society, the brand is equivalent to human identity.
Fast Company, one of the most prominent new magazines of recent years, calls this "the business revolution" and argues that business culture is replacing civil society. "Work is personal" and "computing is social" are points one and two in Fast Company's manifesto for the corporate revolution. If there's going to be any social justice in the world, the magazine contends, it will be because the market has decreed that there be social justice. One of the magazine's writers takes the argument all the way: "Corporations have become the dominant institution of our time," he writes, "occupying the position of the church of the Middle Ages and the nation-state of the past two centuries."
To many of us, this summons unpleasant images. It's going to be the triumph of hierarchy, of homogeneity, of spirit-killing order. Right? We're all going to be robots and automatons. We'll have to listen to Muzak all the time. It's going to be like 1984 or one of those dystopic Schwarzenegger films. Right?
Wrong. The corporate takeover of life in fact has already happened, but one of the most salient characteristics of our emerging corporocracy—this Republic of Business—is that it doesn't demand order, conformity, gray clothes, and Muzak; it presents itself as an opponent to those very things.
Business theory today is about revolution, not about status or hierarchy; it's about liberation, not order. Business is "fast companies" questioning everything from job duties to pay scales to office furniture. Business is thinking "outside the box," as anyone who has flipped through the latest management best-sellers must be tired of hearing. Business is tattooed executives snowboarding down K2 or shrieking down the halls of the great bureaucracies overturning desks and throwing paper. Business is adman Jay Chiat snipping off his clients' ties.
And all this makes for a peculiar national culture marked by a strange coexistence of, on the one hand, extreme political apathy and, on the other, extreme commercial extremism. Politically speaking, dissent against the market order has never been more negligible. In terms of politicians and political commentators, we are living in a time of greater consensus and conformity than the '50s. But take a look at our advertising. Mainstream commercial America is in love with everything alternative, way beyond anything we saw in the '60s. Even the word extreme itself is everywhere, from Taco Bell's "extreme value combos" to Boston Market's "extreme carver" sandwiches to commercials in which Pontiac announces that it is "taking it to the extreme." Not only can the center not hold; the center ceased to hold about 30 years ago. And nobody cares. Certainly the traditional guardians of order don't care, and certainly the business community doesn't care.
Hip is how business understands itself today. And if we're ever going to challenge the power of the corporate culture, the first thing we're going to have to do is to understand that capitalism is different now, especially in the media and advertising industries.
If you talk about culture in this Republic of Business, sooner or later you have to talk about advertising, which remains the central ideological apparatus of the new capitalism. Advertising is the market's subsidizing mechanism, the free-enterprise version of the National Endowment for the Arts, the device through which creative talent is rewarded and cultural enterprises succeed or fail. Advertising is also the public face of capitalism, the device through which what Rutgers University history professor Jackson Lears calls the "fables of abundance" are transmitted and elaborated. The people who make advertising are, in a very real sense, the ideologues of the corporate revolution: They are architects of dissatisfaction and of perpetual obsolescence.
And though it's fun, and even vaguely empowering (to use the catchall adjective of our time) to talk about how oppressive and conformist consumer society is, if you look closely, you'll find advertising nodding in agreement. To be sure, here and there you will come across an ad depicting families whose happiness is consummated by products, but by and large, the work of the cutting-edge agencies is much hipper than that. Advertising, at least on its surface, does not regard the new world of total corporate control as a happy thing.
In fact, a lot of advertising today is full-on critical. It speaks directly to the problems of media, power, and culture. It makes exemplary use of all those images of people in the workplace as robots, in uniform gray, trapped in boxlike elevators and cubicles, driven by sadistic bosses. Advertising recognizes that consumer society hasn't given us the things it promised or solved the problems it was supposed to solve: that consumerism is in fact a gigantic sham. It's lots of hard work for no reason. The rat race. The treadmill. The office as hell.
Call this species of advertising "liberation marketing," to adapt a phrase from business guru Tom Peters. It knows that the culture trust exists, and it knows that business has conquered the world. And in response it offers not just soaps that get your whites whiter, but soaps that liberate you, soda pops that are emblems of individualism, and counter-hegemonic hamburgers. Liberation marketing takes the old critique of mass culture—consumerism as conformity—fully into account, acknowledges it, examines it, and resolves it. Liberation marketing imagines consumers breaking free from the old enforcers of order, tearing loose from the shackles with which capitalism bound us, escaping the routine of bureaucracy and hierarchy, getting in touch with our true selves, and, finally, finding authenticity, that holiest of consumer grails.
The roots of liberation marketing can be traced back to the 1960s, but its true debut was the famous 1984 TV commercial that introduced Apple's Macintosh computer, in which herds of people in gray were freed from the iron grip of Big Brother's propaganda telescreens. (Ironically, the announcement of Microsoft's "rescue" of Apple featured Bill Gates on a telescreen eerily similar to ones in that commercial.) The ad was remarkable not only for the way it was filmed and when it was shown (during the Super Bowl, of course), but for daring to accept, and even endorse, the darkest vision of consumer society. We are a nation of lookalike suckers, it told us, glued to the tube, fastening intently on the words of the Man. Until the Macintosh arrives, that is. The commercial set the tone not only for future Macintosh advertising, but also for the entire body of propaganda for the cyber-revolution that now deluges us every day: Computers are liberating; they empower us; they let us mouth off at authority.
Nowadays, you'll find liberation marketing everywhere—even in ads for chewing gum. Doublemint, for example, abandoned its happy jingle to tantalize us with a vision of the workplace as adult hell and its product as a glimmer of childlike innocence that we can enjoy surreptitiously anywhere. In the "Drivers Wanted" series of Volkswagen commercials, each installment identifies some aspect of consumer society which driving a Volkswagen enables you to resist: fakeness, overwork, boredom, compartmentalization, hierarchy. Especially moving is the spot which describes the soulless glass-and-steel office blocks, in which you are imprisoned.
One of the curious subtexts of liberation marketing is how often commercials are set in the workplace and how they mirror contemporary management philosophies favored by the sponsor, the advertising agency, or the target audience. This is done explicitly in a French Macintosh ad: A rich Italian businessman explains to his son that workers are there to carry out orders and not to think. Otherwise, they'd want to change things, and this does not lie within the scope of their abilities. The voice-over comments: "There are different ways of running a company. Here's one." The Apple logo appears on the screen. The voice-over continues: "Luckily, there are others."
But this kind of anti-establishment approach would never work for the all-devouring Microsoft, which has to find some aspect of mass society other than the spectre of Big Brother to set itself against. Instead Microsoft celebrates a libertarian outlook by showing how it foils bureaucracy.
Contemporary youth culture is liberation marketing's native tongue, but it will also scour history for long-dead emblems of hip, as in the Gap ads featuring Chet Baker, Montgomery Clift, and Jack Kerouac in khaki pants. Since the Beats are, apart from some of the early avant-garde artists, just about the earliest glimmering of the rebellion-through-style against mass society that defines liberation marketing, they and their works are a revered canon of contemporary advertising. In one Volvo commercial, the only spoken words are lines from Kerouac's On the Road. But it's important to Volvo that we understand that the ad campaign is true to the spirit of Kerouac, not just the image. The print ad reads: "Always the romantic, John remembered to bring On the Road. Not one of those new printings he'd seen in the bookstore at the mall, but the original one that he had stored away in the attic." Even advertising is down on mall culture! Find the authentic item in an attic somewhere, and hang it from the rearview mirror in your Volvo!
Here's the Kerouac passage in the commercial: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing." It's a virtual declaration of postmodern consumer desire: the hunger to consume everything at once, to defy the commonplace stuff that other people consume or that we consumed yesterday. It's a line that all copywriters should paste above their doors; a line that belongs in the Norton anthology of great consumer fantasies.
When I say that this is an age of conformity on a level that far exceeds that of the '50s, I'm not saying that there is no cultural dissidence in America. In fact, we have a superabundance of it. Even oldsters who drive the safe, sensible Volvo recognize that the "only ones" are the "mad ones." And look around at other aspects of the media: We are an immensely cynical people when it comes to the culture trust. Media workers, their bosses, and suits in general are stereotypical villains in contemporary mass culture. Nobody except Newt Gingrich likes Rupert Murdoch. We all know bad things are happening to our political and social universe; we know that business is colonizing ever larger chunks of American culture; and we know that advertising tells lies. We are all sick to death of the consumer culture. We all want to resist conformity. We all want to be our own dog.
And yet we do nothing.
I want to suggest that our apathy has a specific relationship to liberation marketing. The market works not only to redefine dissent, but also to occupy the niche that dissident voices used to occupy in the American cultural spectrum. There's an inverse relationship between the prevalence of advertising and America's political apathy. Marshall McLuhan pointed this out back in 1957 in an essay, "American Advertising," describing a letter written by an American army officer stationed in Italy after World War II: "[The officer] noted with misgiving that Italians could tell you the names of cabinet ministers but not the names of commodities preferred by Italian celebrities. Furthermore, the wall space of Italian cities was given over to political rather than commercial slogans. Finally, he predicted that there was small hope that Italians would ever achieve any sort of domestic prosperity or calm until they began to worry about the rival claims of cornflakes or cigarettes rather than the capacities of public men. In fact, he went so far as to say that democratic freedom very largely consists in ignoring politics and worrying about the means of defeating underarm odor, scaly scalp, hairy legs, dull complexion, unruly hair, borderline anemia, athlete's foot, and sluggish bowels."
The point I'm trying to make is not that advertising somehow tricks us into ignoring our problems, but that the culture of consumerism has undergone an enormous change. Dissidence has been channeled into the marketplace; existential rebellion is becoming just as powerful an element of brand loyalty as the 12 ways in which Wonder Bread built strong bodies ever were. When we talk about nonconformity, we're increasingly talking about those particularly outspoken entrepreneurs who are detailed in Wired magazine. When we talk about breaking the rules, we're talking about the people who are in their offices all night but listen to alternative rock while they're there. This is a point that French advertising executive Jean-Marie Dru makes explicitly. Every brand must have an identity, he says, and the most effective identities are those that take on the trappings of social justice: "The great brands . . . have succeeded in conveying their vision by questioning certain conventions, whether it's Apple's humanist vision, which reverses the relationship between people and machines; Benetton's libertarian vision, which overthrows communication conventions; Microsoft's progressive vision, which topples bureaucratic barriers; or Virgin's anticonformist vision, which rebels against the powers that be." The Body Shop owns compassion, Nike spirituality, Pepsi and MTV youthful rebellion.
With its constant talk of liberation, the advertising industry is filling a very specific niche in the cultural spectrum of the Republic of Business. As business replaces civil society, advertising is taking over the cultural functions that used to be filled by the left. Dreaming of a better world is now the work of marketers . We used to have movements for change; now we have products. As American politics become ever more deaf to the idea that the market might not be the best solution for every social problem, the market, bless its invisible heart, is seeing to it that the duties of the left do not go unfilled.
If capitalism's only problems were soul-deadening conformity and lack of authenticity, then it could solve them very effectively—as it has been since the 1960s. But if your idea of capitalism's problems swings more heavily toward sweatshops and downsizing and union busting, then you're talking about something else altogether. This is a critique that advertising will never embrace. No matter how hard up Reebok gets, it will never use the fact of Nike's Indonesian sweatshops to improve its market position. No, it'll just keep talking about how its shoes let U.B.U.
Advertising has real trouble solving concrete social prolems. Not that it doesn't try. Various get-rich-quick schemes are being sold as solutions to unemployment in a recent spate of ads. And then there's the famous Pizza Hut commercial in which management has pizzas delivered to a picket line. The strikers drop their signs, grab a slice, and look up gratefully at the benovolent boss' office window. Problem solved.
So we're back to where we started: The world of business is the world, period. There's nothing outside of it; it's a closed universe. Get as mad as you want. Just be sure the pizza trucks are standing by.
Thomas C. Frank is editor-in-chief of The Baffler. This essay was excerpted from the book Conglomerates and the Media (The New Press, 1997).
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