INTERVIEWS | Thomas Frank
  February 9, 2000
    Voice In The Neon Wilderness

Thomas Frank on liberation marketing, the conquest of cool and the branding of just about everything.

Thomas Frank is the editor of The Baffler, a journal of cultural criticism, which he co-founded ten years ago as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Frank has been a contributing reporter to The Washington Post, The Nation, In These Times, and other periodicals. He received a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago in 1994, with his dissertation, "The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism," becoming a national bestseller. Of "The Conquest of Cool," Geoff Pevere, of Toronto Globe and Mail writes, "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." Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland co-edited "Commodify Your Dissent," with a foreword by Lewis Lapham (1997).

The following conversation between Thomas Frank and Casey Walker took place in November 1998 with the production assistance of KVMR, a community-supported radio station in Nevada City, CA.

CASEY WALKER: In your essay, "Liberation Marketing and the Culture Trust," which was collected in "Conglomerates and the Media" (1998), edited by Eric Barnouw, you write, "The corporate takeover of life is coming; in fact, it's already happened. But what makes the culture of the businessman's republic so interesting is not that it demands order, conformity, gray clothes, and Muzak, but that it presents itself as an opponent to those very conceptions of corporate life. Those who speak for the new order aren't puritanical; they're hip; they're fully tuned in to youth culture; they listen to alternative rock while they work; they fantasize about smashing convention. Business theory today is about revolution, not about stasis or hierarchy; it's about liberation, not order." Will you elaborate upon the ironies at work here?

TOM FRANK: That's one of my favorite passages. This is why I study business, and why it's not really so very dreary and dull as people think it is. I study the way business works in opposition to itself. It goes something like this: Many people now know the story of what I call the 'Culture Trust' and the conglomeratization of various culture industries. People understand how, with the concentration of ownership, the things that make up their lives are increasingly under the control of fewer and fewer hands. We see a great, popular demonology of corporate villains that especially tends to focus on the leaders of the culture industry, such as Rupert Murdoch, who is a very widely hated figure. In the last James Bond movie, the villain was a culture captain, a tycoon of culture, a Murdoch figure. It's not as if people don't know what is going on. What becomes fascinating is the way the culture industry doesn't deny it and doesn't try to mitigate it, but tries to sell its products as a way of liberating oneself.

It's curious how this parallels what goes on in academia. In academic fields like cultural studies, there's a lot of emphasis placed on finding and celebrating instances of audience "counter-hegemony" or audience "agency"—instances of people not acting in the way that TV or the culture industry tells them to—the idea being that people really do have free will. It's curious to find the exact same idea in the products of the culture industry. In "Liberation Marketing and the Culture Trust," I focused on the particular tendency of advertising to talk about the endless possibilities for human freedom with whatever product at hand. These days, of course, the focus of talk about popular liberation through products is mostly associated with the Internet. I've been collecting computer ads and ads dealing with Internet industries. I don't think there are any ads that use sales pitches other than the idea that this product will somehow liberate you and set you free. Even products on the periphery of this industry, such as a product that is supposed to make images on your computer look 3-D rather than 2-D, sells itself to consumers as a product which enables you to escape the 2-D police. It shows a user running through a fantasy landscape that looks like a dystopic novel, a scene from 1984, and she is running from secret police who are flat, 2-D. She finally gets to her computer, plugs it in with this product, and finally everything puffs up to normal in 3-D. She's safe.

It trades on popular and misplaced paranoia?

Yes, right. There are plenty of things that are wrong. Marxists used to use the term "false consciousness," which is very out of fashion these days. If we were to ask people how ads work, most people would say, "They work by tricking people but they don't trick me." Everyone wants to think they are so much more clever, think for themselves, and do not act as the ad men expect them to.

Does autonomy exist free of the culture industry?

I think there's great potential for autonomy, but we have to remember that we live in a world where people may have free will but have not invented their circumstances. People are born in a certain place, and in a certain society. I don't mean to sound like a determinist, but to think we're entirely free to do whatever we want betrays a certain class perspective. For most people who have to work for a living, and work at jobs under conditions they may not like, it's just not simple when it comes to freedom. I always want to keep returning, in my writing and in my thinking, to the fundamental core fact of our society's exploitative structure. It doesn't matter how wonderful the stock market is doing, or whether we entered a new realm with the rising tide of capital lifting all boats. For the vast majority of all people, it's not that wonderful.

Will you elaborate further on the ironies of brand identities, when, as you say, "The most effective identities are found when a brand takes on the trappings of a movement for social justice." Apple is humanist, Benetton is libertarian, Microsoft is progressive, Virgin Records is anticonformist, Body Shop is compassion, Nike is authenticity, Pepsi is youthful rebellion.

Right, Nike is a good example. As we all know, Nike is a terrible exploiter of labor in other countries while advertising themselves here as being the bearer of "authenticity," with products that will put you back in touch with "real life." They even had a series of commercials several years ago about "the revolution," which was basketball when played from the heart and not for love of money. It's about as ironic as it gets because, of course, they're the ones paying Michael Jordan vast sums of money. Here's a funny story: I went to an advertising convention a couple of months ago and they had people from Nike's advertising agency who were getting a prize for an ad campaign they'd done. These people got up and talked about where the campaign had come from and how they'd come up with it. The problem had been not that Nike's sales had suffered too much, but that there are bad public perceptions of Nike. The answer was not to address the problem—deal with labor issues—but to fix their public image by hooking Nike up with an "authenticity" that no one could deny. So, they sent ad people all over the country looking for the most authentic sport they could find. It turned out to be high school girl's basketball because it's the most unpolluted. These girls are not going to become superstars. They might get a college scholarship, but that's a step in the right direction and hardly "selling out." These ad men spoke of it in the same way as the 1930s WPA authors who photographed sharecroppers. In fact, the photography in the Nike ads resembled those 1930s photographs for that exact purpose. It was "authentic." Sick stuff. Turned my stomach. They won the first place prize!

Where's the accountability?

In America, we no longer have an institutionalized, organized way of calling business to task—of taking them to account for what they've done—and this is especially true in the cultural realm. There are people like us on the edges who mock and deride, but the fact is, there used to be more balance in American life. That was at a time when labor was more powerful than it is now. I often hear people complain about what has happened to our country—the fall of civility—but it rarely occurs to people that the big change in American life in the last 50 years is the loss of power for working people.

From your point of view, where is our collective offense taken, where do are our "democratic sensibilities" become appropriately offended by monopolies, by the "total universe" of corporate media?

These sensibilities are old, 19th century, republican ideals. That attitude has pretty much gone away. I've been reading muckraking books from the 1930s, when there was still this intense hatred and fear of monopolies—especially newspaper chains. All sorts of laws were passed. NBC was broken up, and one of its networks became ABC. These things come and go. I'd like to inspire people to take things into their own hands, particularly labor, to re-imagine old traditions or new ways to forcefully bring things into balance.

An example is the demise of environmental reporting, and the demise of the labor beat. It was a standard reporter's beat—every newspaper had a labor correspondent. Now, it exists only in a handful of papers, mainly business newspapers that want to keep an eye on labor. As a subject of general social importance, it has completely vanished. I have a friend who works for a major newspaper. He was in an editorial meeting in which they were going over their reader demographics. All newspapers in the country are fretting over declining readerships, and particularly among certain demographic groups. They noticed that working class people have basically stopped reading their newspaper. He recommended hiring a labor reporter, and they laughed him out; they looked to better sports coverage. Things don't happen magically in culture, they happen because clashing forces make them happen. The period I look back to as having a lively, civic exchange, is with the muckrakers and writers who came out of a period of colossal turmoil. There were gigantic industrial struggles we can barely imagine anymore. I think there is the distinct possibility that this kind of struggle will return—I have no doubt, as a matter of fact.

To what extent do you believe it's true, as you wrote, "There is no tradition, religion, or language that can seriously challenge the cultural authority of business."

I was in a bad mood when I wrote that. But I think it's true. I'm trying to be realistic about the last couple of years, and I'm also trying to hold out hope. I publish this magazine. I haven't gone and joined a corporate law firm or hurled myself off a tall building. I obviously think there's hope, and that someone has to challenge it all. When I wrote that, things looked a lot bleaker than they do to me now. I believe Gingrich had just been elected or was just about to be elected. However, if we look back on the 1990s, I'm definitely right about that one--nobody has found a language to challenge business in a convincing manner. Or, if they have found it, they haven't found a platform to speak it from. This is something that is just not done anymore, this is something few dare to do. However, now that you mention it, there are signs. Time magazine is doing a series on corporate welfare that is just a hoot—so long overdue—and they're really handing out the punishment. Whether people sit up and take notice, who knows? The government really is in the hands of the lobbyists, the organized bribery we have going now.

In Todd Gitlin's "Twilight of Common Dreams," we can see a cultural bind in the lack of purchase on discourse when there is no discourse agreed upon as larger than various speakers. Is it completely naive to think of a counterculture today in Umberto Eco's definition—with noncontingent, self-sustaining beliefs and values apart from business?

I don't think reformulating discourse is enough. The sort of discourse I look back to as powerful and meaningful and challenged business, didn't just do it on its own. It came out of decades of industrial conflict, the clash of titanic forces. I don't think language is enough by itself, it needs to be coupled with power. Power is what is lacking these days. Lord knows there are good intentions out there, and many people are aware of the fact that things are slipping out of their fingers, that even though this is a democracy, they don't have any control over their own culture, their own economy, or their own lives. Everybody knows this, which is why "The X-Files" is so damn popular and why so many people believe in such silly, silly things. Yet, we have trouble coming up with ways of taking things back on their own. . .other than buying Fruitopia!? Countercultures are such constructed things now, so industrially planned, that I just can't share Umberto Eco's enthusiasm for them.

The problem that interests me is the absence of public thought, not packaged for the public but out in the public sphere directly, honestly, from people who are thinking. Can you imagine producing print and broadcast media for the purposes of arguing the "questions of our time"?

I certainly hope so. First, however, the language of "building the space for conversation" is really hackneyed. Whenever I hear it, I run in fear. It sounds too much like retro- foundation playground talk. Another problem is it's how the Internet is described—it's how corporations talk, it's what they say they're doing. But definitely, that's what we had in mind when we started our magazine. Absolutely. I encourage everyone to start their own magazine.

Yet, scale for scale, the cultural shift requisite to reversing our impact on the natural world can only come of swift, wide communication and public change. If our tools of communication are contingent upon corporate media as we know it, then we cannot be using them in the way they need to be used. How do you imagine media in a whole new way?

That's the big question. If I could answer that one. . . .

If we look at labor organizing against industrial-production monopolies in the Industrial Age, why not look at communicators organizing against discourse monopolies now in the Information Age?

Maybe we will. Things are changing out there in the world of intelligentsia because things are falling apart in academia—at least in the humanities. There is a floating army of unemployed Ph.D.s, thinkers and readers. Historically, whenever this happens, there is always a great deal of theorizing that goes on. At times like these, all sorts of wonderful things come about. Maybe we'll get a great cultural flowering, who knows? I don't want to minimize how horrified I am at the world, and how troubling it is, but at the same time, I don't think it's over yet. There are plenty of intelligent people out there. Labor unions are not illegal. There are many, many people disenchanted with the world corporations have made. To this day, I honestly believe that if the Democrats were to run on a platform much like the one they ran on in say 1936 or 1940, they would win by a massive margin. They need to talk about social class and going after the corporations. But they don't want to do that, the people in office now are perfectly comfortable with their ties to money. They're not planning on passing any great, sweeping legislation anyway. These things can be taken on, though; they can change. I don't mean to be a complete pessimist. I think the public would go for something like this; I don't think they've been co-opted by entertainment and pleasure and don't care anymore about their real lives.

- Casey Walker is the founding editor and publisher of Wild Duck Review (P.O.Box 388, Nevada City, CA 95959; 530-478-0134), a journal featuring essays, poetry, book reviews and memoirs, with over 70 interviews with writers, poets, ecologists, cultural critics, and politicians to date.

This interview first appeared in Wild Duck Review; reprinted by permission. Copyright Wild Duck Review, 2000.


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