REASON * May 1998
If legislative politics makes for strange bedfellows, then cultural politics makes for the sort of interspecies couplings that warranted the death penalty in colonial America. Consider the recent convergence between right-wing and left-wing critics regarding motifs in popular culture in genearl and advertising in particular. For different--though ultimately related--reasons, both the right and the left decry the ubiquity of products and images tied to "rule breaking," "cultural rebels," and "revolution."
This surprising meeting of minds is on display in The Weekly Standard's January 19, just-short-of-a-rave review of The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, by Thomas Frank. As a contributor to The Nation and In These Times, Frank is not the sort of guy conservatives usually bring home to mother. Indeed, given his role as editor of The Baffler, a magazine of leftoid cultural criticism that prefaced a recent issue bemoaning the decline of unions with a long quote from John Reed, one expects Frank to be on the other side of the battlefield from most conservatives, not cozying up in the same foxhole.
And yet there's The Weekly Standard, bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch, a Lex Luthor-level supervillain in The Baffler's universe, cooing, "Frank has produced a refreshingly spirited book" and lamenting in solidarity with its crossover comrade that "too many Americans now appear too willing to believe that deep human needs can be satisfied through the constant accumulation of new-but-disposable goods: cars, computers, soft drinks, sports shoes--everything from razor blades to pork rinds--that are perpetually pitched as daring, vaguely dangerous, cool."
For conservatives, much of the appeal of critiques of "consumerism" is the focus on how advertising exhorts people to libertinism and impulsive behavior, to live for the moment rather than the long haul. The Conquest of Cool is steeped in such an analysis and throws in an added bonus for right-wingers: a critique of the '60s counterculture. Frank's book is a study of how during that decade corporate America co-opted, helped create, and perpetuated popular countercultural motifs of youthful defiance, particularly in the advertising and men's clothing industries. Drawing on the work of social historians such as Warren Susman, William Leach, and Jackson Lears, Frank details the evolution of '60s-era ad campaigns such as Columbia Records' "The Man Can't Bust Our Music," Oldsmobile's "Youngmobiles," and 7Up's "Un-Cola" pitch.
Such ads, says Frank, are the forebears of today's omnipresent images of "cultural rebels": "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," writes Frank. "Nike shoes are sold by...William S. Burroughs, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott-Heron...the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation...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."
Like most conservatives who watch TV, surf the Web, or walk into a record shop, Frank is profoundly dispirited by what he sees: "However we may rankle under the bureaucratized monotony of our productive lives, in our consuming lives we are no longer merely affluent, we are rebels. Efficiency may remain the values of daytime, but by night we rejoin the nonstop carnival of our consuming lives. As it turned out, the mass society critique was one with which American capitalism was singularly well prepared to deal--which is why it sometimes seems we will never be rid of it."
Of course, that a leftist would gnash his teeth over the seeming triumph of "American capitalism" is hardly surprising. What is interesting is how closely such a formulation meshes with contemporary right-wing takes on the same topic. Consider, for example, William J. Bennett's article about "rock-&-roll and the collapse of authority," which appeared last year in The American Enterprise. It pondered "what hath the Beatles wrought?" A confessed "lover of early rock-and-roll music," the former drug czar reluctantly concedes that, yes, there might "be something intrinsic in the rock ethic that quickly leads down the slippery slope from liberty to libertinism." In suggesting this, he follows a trail blazed by Allan Bloom, who speculated a decade ago in The Closing of the American Mind that rock and music videos transform "life...[into] a nonstop...masturbational fantasy."
As those familiar with Bennett's attacks on Time Warner and Interscope Records for marketing gangsta rap might anticipate, what particularly exercises Bennett is the way in which Big Culture's never-mind-the-bollocks fixation on the bottom line grows the market for such fare. "It was once understood that the entertainment industry would exercise corporate responsibility, even to the point of self-censorship," writes Bennett. "There were lines the profit-seekers would not cross. No more. We now see companies like Seagram/Universal, Sony, BMG, and others exploiting the youth rebellion instinct--and even expanding it. Michael Green, the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards the Grammies [sic], recently said this (specifically in reference to drug use): `We happen to be an industry [rock music] that runs fast, it runs hard, it sells the manifestation of the rebellion that kids need to exercise. I mean, it's their job to rebel and we sell that rebellion.'"
For Bennett, such coldly calculated, profit-maximizing anarchy is bad enough when confined to the music business. But it hasn't stopped there, he observes--all sorts of products now invoke such calls to insurrection and the pursuit of pleasure. "We see much the same philosophy in other industries," he observes. "Saab tells us to `Peel off inhibitions'; Burger King instructs us that `Sometimes you gotta break the rules'; and Healthy Choice cereals assures us that if you want to be happy, `You gotta make your own rules.'" Such exhortations, argues Bennett, lead to a "nihilistic cultural environment that says there are `No Limits.'" (`No Limits' has been the tag line for products such as Diet Coke and Reebok sneakers. Bennett's reading of the phrase illustrates the conservative penchant for equating choice with nihilism. It can also be read easily as a call to self-improvement rather than a cry for moral transgression.) True to right-wing form, Bennett dates the decline as beginning in the 1960s, a period in which "many adults no longer pushed back" against the "propensity of the young to rebel and push the limits."
To be sure, Bennett and Frank are upset for very different reasons. Bennett worries that people will follow mass directives toward rule breaking and unrestraint to the point that they will actually stop being diligent, hard-working, and virtuous. That is, the effect will be to destroy the current order or, perhaps more precisely for Bennett, his vision of 1950s America. Indeed, in his writings, which are packed with references to a "palpable cultural decline," "a society in decline," and "social regression," Bennett seems to assume the disaster has already taken place. He wanders the riven landscape like a moral claims adjuster, often calculating precise dollar estimates of the damage.
Frank, however, is concerned that radical social change--that is, real revolution, the sort in which the workers of the world unite--is being stymied by commercial appeals to faux-rebellion. Referring to Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism--a book which hugely informs both right- and left-wing critiques of consumerism--Frank notes that as consumers, we are taught to spend, spend, spend, whereas "the workplace still demands the...values of diligence and sublimation." Frank suggests that "[h]ip consumerism resolves the `contradiction,' at least symbolically....Our celebrities are not just glamorous, they are insurrectionaries; our police and soldiers are not just good guys, they break the rules for a higher purpose. And through them and our imagined participation in whatever is the latest permutation of the rebel Pepsi Generation, we have not solved, but we have defused the problems of mass society."
Where '60s-era leftists urged radicals to "maximize the contradictions," Frank recognizes that "capitalism" is quick to outflank such vanguard tactics and create its own brand of "perpetual revolution." In this, he echoes any number of left-wing critiques, such as this one by literary critic Gerald Graff: "The essence of capitalistic reality is its unreality, its malleable, ephemeral quality, which provides little in the way of a resisting medium against which personal identity is formed."
But different as they may be on an overt political level, Bennett's and Frank's concerns are nonetheless rooted in a common source: an embrace of top-down authority as the ultimate, rightful source of value and structure in society. In the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, "Why I Am Not a Conservative," F.A. Hayek noted that conservatives and socialists ultimately agree on issues of power and coercion. "Like the socialist," wrote Hayek, the conservative "is less concerned with the problem of how powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people." Where libertarians or classical liberals argue that "neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion...both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits."
Transposed into discussions of culture, this common tendency leads to an exclusive focus on the producer rather than the consumer as both the creator and definer of value and meaning. The Conquest of Cool, writes its author at the outset, "is a study of cultural production rather than reception, of power rather than resistance; it does not address the subject of consumer evasiveness except as it is discussed by advertising executives and menswear manufacturers."
Bennett similarly focuses on the "corporate boardroom." While granting that corporations are responding to consumer demand in creating rebellious imagery, he nonetheless accuses corporations of consumer "exploitation" that must not be allowed. Indeed, Bennett likens corporations to permissive parents who have forgotten how to restrain and discipline their rambunctious children. The result is that, in Bennett's and Frank's analyses, consumers drop out of the equation--or, what amounts to the same thing, are infantalized. By definition, they--we--must be cared for by parents of some sort, whether right-wing, left-wing, or corporate.
Such a baseline premise leads to impoverished analysis. Both Bennett and Frank acknowledge that relative general affluence in postwar America gave rise to advertising that seeks to create symbolic value for products. But why then does rebellion, like sex, seemingly sell so well in an American context? Oddly, neither Bennett nor Frank seems particularly interested in casting back into pre-1960s history for answers as to why rule-breaking and individualism might be dominant motifs, despite a long and popular American tradition of nonconformity that includes such events and figures as Roger Williams, the Antinomian Crisis, the American Revolution, Henry David Thoreau, John Brown, the Civil War, and women suffragists (one might add that Ben Franklin's autobiography, one of the great early milestones of our national literature, is explicitly a blueprint for individual fulfillment via rule breaking). Similarly, Bennett never wonders why, if it is symbolic rejection of social mores that sells records, Cannibal Corpse's 1994 ditty, "Stripped, Raped, and Strangled" --cited by Bennett as representative of today's hit parade--didn't actually top the charts.
From a top-down perspective the actual commercial fate of any product is less important than its mere existence. Ultimately, such an approach to culture relies too heavily on the intentions of the producers (an especially unwise approach when dealing with ad men), cutting out the fuller social context. Just as the final selling price of a good or service is not set by producer fiat, neither are psychic value and meaning solely a function of producer intent. These things are subject to intense, ongoing negotiations between buyer and seller, producer and consumer, author and reader; their ultimate meaning is hashed out in the no man's land of the commercial, intellectual, and emotional marketplaces.
For example, are diners who chow down on Pizza Hut's "Edge" pizza--the ads for which insist consumers "Take it to the edge!"--vicariously indulging in an extreme sport or act of moral subversion? Or do they eat the pie--or choose not to--for other reasons altogether? What role does the pizza's actual physical attributes--toppings, sauce, crust, etc.--play? Precisely on what psychic terms, say, do people "do" Mountain Dew? Do consumers identify with its skateboard-thrashing, snowboard-riding shills? Do some retrograde drinkers recall its old hillbilly image and guzzle it as an homage to simpler times? How important to its market is its day-glo color and higher-than-average caffeine and sugar content?
Despite corporate America's occasional bravado regarding its advertising and marketing prowess, its claims either to know what people want or to make people want what it has to sell, these kinds of questions are not necessarily answerable with any certainty. Are consumer focus groups representative? Can the individuals in them articulate why they choose one product over another? What is the best relationship between an ad image and the product it promotes? Why do seemingly perfectly situated products flop? And seemingly bad ones succeed? Why do modes of general cultural discourse change, what do they really mean at any given point, and is there any way to predict, much less direct, the next shift?
These are indeed difficult questions--and to the extent that they locate power, meaning, and value outside of elites who might evaluate them, manage them, and control them, they are unlikely to be addressed fully by either right-wing or left-wing cultural critics.
Nick Gillespie is a senior editor of REASON.