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Mar 22 2010

The Conquest of Cool: The 1960s Changed It All!

By Peter H. Smeallie IV

In The Conquest of Cool, writer Tom Frank discusses the many dramatic changes that occurred between the 1950s and 1960s, and how those changes not only affected the economic and business/marking side of America, but also the mass consumption-driven cultural side of it too.

In the first few chapters, Frank talks about the various overall ideologies that were prevalent in the pre-1960s era, and then about how the nation afterwards, as he puts it on page 1 of his book, became “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 live.” He talks about the stiff, “grey-flannel shirt” worker mentality of the 1950s (coupled with the rational, scientific, “assembly line” style corporate management which promoted that type of mentality), and how when the New Left/Counterculture movement took place in the decade to follow, advertisers on Madison Avenue reapproached their way of marketing and shifted their focus to the new, “hip” young group of American consumers.  Using references to Forrest Gump, The Graduate, bands such as The Doors, Iron Butterfly, The Beatles, and musician Bob Dylan, and political/academic figures of the time such as Theodore Roszak, Newt Gingrich (whom Frank writes as being “anti-sixties” and against the “celebration of difference, transgression, and carnivalesque [nature]” of that time period), and Norman Mailer, Frank further discusses Theory X and Theory Y, the two modes of business/industry that fit America during the 1950s and 1960s—Theory X being the “boring,” “monolithic,” and unchanging conservative mode of business (workers being “‘coerced,’ supervised, and ‘directed’ to a hierarchy of power”), and Theory Y being the more motivation-driven, individualistic, “sophisticated” mode of business that rewards the worker for their labor instead of punishing them for their mistakes. Frank talks about Rosser Reeves, the man who directed Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign commercial, as well as David Olgivy, the two marketers of the 1950s and 1960s era who were aligned with the rigid, bureaucratic, and scientific Theory X state of mind, and then follows by mentioning J. Walter Thompson and the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency (DDB), two major advertisement firms that catered to the new, counterculture movement of America and changed the face of marketing.

In chapter 3, Frank starts out by talking about how the values of the 1960s towards work and industry became more about glorifying free-spiritedness, breaking rules, and “[squashing] conventionality like a ripe fruit” than succumbing to the orders and demands of corporate bosses. He then continues by talking about the rise of DDB, its focus on loosening the strict, corporate structure of advertisement and changing it to one based more on artsy and creative marketing, how Bernbach invented “anti-advertising” and the strategy of selling goods through eliciting “public mistrust,” and the company’s substantial campaign to sell cars such as Volkswagen. Frank references a quote by Bernbach on page 57 of his book, “Logic and overanalysis can immobilize and sterilize an idea… It’s like love—the more you analyze it the faster it disappears,” and that is exactly the way Frank talks about how new advertisers such as DDB operated. They advocated disregarding rules, being funny in their ads, and convincing the audience that their advertisements were honest. Frank then mentions several examples of those types of advertisements, including the Burlington Mid-Length Socks commercial where the man hops ands flails around his room, testing the tightness (or elasticity) of his socks, the Alka Seltzer commercial where an actor is shown eating pasta and exclaiming “Mama Mia!” through a series of bloopers, and a Volkswagen advertisement where DDB urges buyers against purchasing “old” types of VWs because of their association with Hitler and the Nazis.

In the next few chapters, Frank further discusses the “Creative Revolution” of companies such as DDB, J. Walter Thompson, Wells, Rich, Green, and Foote, Cone, & Belding, as well as Papert, Koenig, and Lois (PKL), an agency whose loud, outspoken, representative, George Lewis, outrageously, outlandishly, and audaciously approached different methods and strategies of advertising. He talks about how, compared to marketer Reeves, who designed commercials to “‘Open by getting attention…’ ‘Establish news value…’ [and] ‘Briefly show what the product is,’” DDB and other Creative Revolution companies believed that advertisements involved emotional and aesthetic seduction, and could not be refined through research or objective, scientific data. Frank talks about how advertisers approached kids/the youth and catered to their individuality, free-spiritedness, rebelliousness, and hedonism-based values/beliefs. He then gives several examples of advertisements, such as those for Barney’s Men’s Store, Suzuki, and Chevy, that promoted those above values/beliefs. He talks about Wells, Rich, Green (WRG) being the “hippest” company in America, and one which made many hilarious commercials, the feminist movement(s) and how companies catered to independent-minded women with products such as “Pristeen” deodorant and “Pond’s” hand lotion, and then finishes up chapter 7 and 8 by talking about 7-Up being the hip, new “uncola” drink.

Our discussions in class on Tuesday and Thursday of last week, for the most part, covered a majority of the topics discussed in the book: the dichotomies of mainstream vs. counterculture (and how the latter ended up becoming the former), Theory X and Y, and scientific vs. artistic advertising, and overall, how firms such as DDB revolutionized the face of advertising/marketing in America. The first two clips we watched were of the 1952 presidential campaign commercial for Dwight D. Eisenhower, which used facts and science to encourage voters, and the 1964 presidential campaign commercial for John F. Kennedy, which used the juxtaposition of a cute little girl picking flowers and a sequence of repetitive mushroom clouds filling the sky, to elicit an emotional rather than rational response. Some of the other important points put forth by our discussion leaders were that firms such DDB packaged and sold the counterculture of the 1960s to the public, that, due to a growth in TV sales between the 1950s and 1960s, consumerism increased, and that counterculture, because of its outspoken, verbal nature, was more pervasive than rational, bureaucratic, Theory X advertising. I thought it was intriguing how, during the 1960s, advertising was about intending to be funny and “honest,” and how many commercials were structured around the theme of “the other guy and you” (which, I think, in many ways, was both directly and indirectly influenced by the “us and them” mentality of the Cold War). Also, it wasn’t about “keeping up with the Joneses.” Rather, it was about “keeping up with your kids,” and the culture of industry and “hip” consumerism essentially became irreconcilable enemies. The second day in class we watched a clip from the show Mad Men which dealt with the issues of males vs. females and Jews vs. WASPs/Gentiles in the advertising industry, in addition to the battle of “management vs. creativity” that pervaded firms. In the clip, a Jewish female client wanted to expand her New York store to reach the wide, non-Jewish population and be more hip/mainstream like Coco Chanel. One of the male workers angrily ignored her on the basis that she was Jewish and a woman, while another reluctantly listened to her because the “client is always right.” We then segued to a conversation on how commercials draw on our irrational, emotional tendencies more so than our logical and reasoning abilities, and talked about how Apple Macs and PCs symbolize the two polar opposite methods of advertisement—the scientific and artistic. We finished up by watching several ads, including the “Mama Mia!” Alka Seltzer, Burlington Mid-Length Socks, and funeral-themed Volkswagen commercial, as well as a clip on the innovative 1960s artist, Peter Max. Finally, somebody put forth the irony that many advertisements simultaneously encourage both thriftiness and spending (the latter subliminally) in their commercials.

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