Book Talk: The Conquest of Cool

“Many in American business…imagined the counterculture not as an enemy to be undermined or a threat to consumer culture but as a hopeful sign, a symbolic ally in their own struggles against the mountains of dead-weight procedure and hierarchy that accumulated over the years. If American capitalism can be said to have spent the 1950s dealing in conformity and consumer fakery, during the decade that followed, it would offer the public authenticity, individuality, difference, and rebellion.”


“The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism” by Thomas Frank (1997)


After the Mad Men season finale aired in May of 2015, I went looking for books that would take me inside the world of vintage advertising and The Conquest of Cool is the one I found. Author Thomas Frank is from Kansas City and is also a political analyst, historian and journalist.

“I found it impossible to escape the feeling that I was writing about my temporal homeland. For me…the sixties are the beginning of the present, the birthplace of the styles and tastes and values that define our world.”

– I got chills when Frank said this early on. The first sentence I could adopt as my own and the second is exactly how I always feel when I watch Mad Men.

What I got from this book is exactly what I had wanted but it was a challenging read. Frank’s book is appropriately academic though it is able to avoid being dry and boring. He does, though, go deep into the weeds with his analyses. The opening passages can make the book seem daunting to the casual vintage media traveler as Frank describes the differences between “mass society” and “counterculture” and pumps words at you like “hegemony” and “homo” and “heterogeneity”. This may have fans of Roger Sterling scratching their heads but the foundations of Thomas Frank’s dissertation must be laid; hang in there.

In Chapter One, Frank harkens back to the pioneers of advertising and details how these individuals gave way to “group thinking”. He discusses a change from the “inner-directed man” to the “other-directed man”, one who’s concern is “what are my neighbours doing?”. He makes plain his case that – in the Fifties – the advertising business was made up of faceless groups of identical looking men and describes how their uniformity in all things including thought and business practice lead to an empty anonymity. Frank also proposes the “co-optation theory”; how advertisers stole genuine elements from the counterculture, neutered and sanitized them, and used these symbols to sell products to the masses. He explains that agencies felt that efficiency, hierarchy and organization were the keys to productivity, evidenced by their massive, encyclopedic manuals filled with unbreakable rules and instructions. He wraps the first chapter by describing the counterculture as a portion of society that wants to break free; advertising agencies wanted to, also. To leave behind the practices of the 50s and to start thinking outside the box.

“The change in the nation’s advertising is less frequently remembered as one of the important turning points between the Fifties and Sixties, but the changes here were, if anything, even more remarkable, more significant and took place slightly earlier than those in music and youth culture.”

In chapter 2, however, we enter the 1960s and see changes coming to the business. We are introduced to the “creative genius” and see how the scientific method of advertising gives way to creative inspiration. Frank describes how the methods moved away from relying on research and analytics, treating the public as “little better than fools”. Interestingly, the author notes that new consumer demands could be created, demands that would not necessarily have existed if advertisements did not incite them.

In the Fifties: “Admen are a group about which it is safe to generalize. They ordinarily work extremely hard, live in Westchester suburbs, and commute to Grand Central, which is a short walk from their offices on Madison Avenue. They do indeed drink martinis, especially during client lunches at ’21’. And, although they no longer wear grey flannel now that that fabric has developed an unflattering reputation, the advertising man’s habitual avoidance of clothing that might seem flamboyant denies him a role of a leader of fashion.”

In the Sixties: “Advertising narratives suddenly idealized not the repressed account man in grey flannel, but the manic, unrestrained creative person in offbeat clothing. The world of advertising was no longer bureaucratic and placid with scientism; but artistic and dysfunctional, a place of wild passions, broken careers, fear, drunkenness and occasional violence.”

– And that’s how advertising changed in the Sixties in a nutshell.

Later Frank introduces Bill Bernbach, a leader of the creative revolution that was made up of a new breed of admen who were not just discarding the styles of their predecessors but were vehemently opposed to creating ads anything like those seen in the Fifties. Bernbach pioneered a more honest approach to advertising a product, a showing the consumer that they understood and that they were somehow on the side of the consumer and the general public.

The reader will learn of the legendary Volkswagen ads and how they broke all the conventions and advertising rules of the Fifties. Bernbach and his agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, made ads declaring the car ugly and a lemon and – opposed to the ads of the 50s that declared the many changes from last year’s model – these VW ads trumpeted the sameness of the vehicle from year to year. Thomas Frank declares the Volkswagen ads a rare triumph; they took a vehicle made by Nazis and made it hip. They – the mostly Jewish people at the mostly Jewish agency, DDB – made a car that was known as a Nazi product desirable to the public. This is maybe the boldest example of co-optation to be found in advertising history. Frank also drives home the point that there was nothing cool about the Volkswagen – advertising made it so.

In later chapters, Frank introduces three other rebel admen and how they made agencies “madhouses of fear and constant danger”. Copywriters and art directors worked together at agencies to create out of their own imaginations and did not create according to the whims of the clients. Frank details agencies resigning accounts before they would bow to a clients’ demands and he compares how the counterculture upended society at large to what was happening concurrently in advertising. So, youth culture was rising up and it was youth who did most of the spending. Honesty was required to sell to the young and ads became less sensational.

Fascinating to learn that in the 1960s ads emerged that acknowledged they were ads and told you to ignore that and just try this product for yourself. Ads that told you what to buy – by telling you not to listen to ads that told you what to buy. Be an individual! Be a rebel! Take 7-Up’s “Uncola” campaign. Here were ads that promoted not the product’s attributes but an attitude; what it could mean to the individual to buy this product instead of the two black pops.

1969 by Kim Whitesides. 7-Up often used psychedelic art reminiscent of the film Yellow Submarine.

Speaking of pop, Thomas Frank’s discussion of the so-called “cola wars” is the most fascinating part of The Conquest of Cool. Frank relates the story of the Pepsi-Cola company choosing not to attempt to appeal to an established segment of the population but instead to create their own; “the Pepsi Generation”. Because there was really no discernible difference between Pepsi and it’s long-time rival, Coca-Cola, Pepsi’s agency, BBDO, chose to differentiate the users of these products. The Pepsi Generation were young at heart, youth, after all, being an attitude as opposed to a specific age group. The campaign sought to lure the whole country; who doesn’t want to “think young” and adopt a youthful outlook? When McCann-Erickson, Coke’s agency, encouraged the cola giant to fight back and adopt a similar strategy, Coke resisted as they were a more traditional company and a uniquely American one. Pepsi, then, went a step further and co-opted the “generation gap” and made it a “cola gap”. Old people drank Coke; youthful people drank Pepsi. A line was drawn and two sides were formed.

Here’s where Thomas Frank really blew my mind; “In it’s haste to encourage youthful defiance of convention, Pepsi may somehow have contributed to the divisiveness of the late 60s”. Instead, then, of Mad Ave. mimicking what youth were doing, youth began acting out what they saw in Pepsi ads – which eventually lead to social disruption and violence. So, BBDO produced a dramatic shift that presaged – came before – the vast changes through the Sixties. Keep in mind that The Pepsi Generation was born in 1963 before the country began to split. Frank establishes then that real kids, their attitudes, activities and their battles with the establishment had – in part, at least – been conceived by – an ad campaign. A former employee of BBDO went so far as to say that he thought his agency had contributed to some of the rebelliousness going on in the country and felt guilty about it.

Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!

In the final chapters, Thomas Frank details the legacy of the world of advertising in the 1960s. He digs deep into fashion and the Peacock Revolution, he talks of the Federal Trade Commission cracking down on misleading ads and he confirms that the contributions of the legends of advertising in the 60s are still being paid homage to today. He drives home the paradoxical idea that consumerism was propelled madly onward by a popular disgust with consumerism. Frank’s appendices show much relevant data and reveal the extent of his research and the mountain of old magazines from the decade that he pored through.

For many, Mad Men leant a lustre of magic to advertising in the 1960s and many viewers came away thinking that there was surely something poignant and significant going on in the industry during this time. Something that related to society at large and the general population. Thomas Frank’s scholarly book confirms that there is much to discuss and learn about this topic. Think of The Conquest of Cool as a text book from school; Fun School. Sucks to think that they may have tried to teach us cool stuff like this when we were in high school but we were too dumb to be interested so we cut class to sit on the curb and read On the Road.

Who can forget Don Draper’s pitch for Kodak’s slide projector?

Some may find The Conquest of Cool too academic and often inscrutable when compared to other fanciful mid-century texts. But this subject demands such analysis and in-depth study as something truly sociologically significant was going on in the advertising world of the 1960s. Get your copy at AbeBooks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s