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Thomas Frank, author of "The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism" and editor of The Baffler, a journal of cultural criticism, gave a talk on "Trends in Advertising" on Nov. 8. The event was sponsored by the MIT Communications Forum.
Henry Jenkins, the Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities and director of the Program in Comparative Media Studies, described Frank as an "important grassroots critic of contemporary media and consumer culture and a true public intellectual--someone who is an original thinker and an iconoclastic voice and who makes important topics available to a broader public."
Jenkins also commented, "The new advertising is anti-advertising--too hip to stoop to marketing products--and it appeals to a generation which has been described as too cynical to take traditional messages seriously. Frank recognizes that the advertising industry constantly responds to the criticisms which are leveled against it and reinvents itself to route around them, thus insuring that its messages feel fresh to new consumers, even if they are selling some pretty stale goods."
Frank, who added some humorous asides to his prepared test, suggested that audience members get into a receptive frame of mind to ponder the power of advertising within the "new businessman's republic."
"Think for a second about coolness: the lone, alienated individual regarding society scornfully, perpetually updating the derision we all feel for the 1950s, that chronically uncool period," he urged.
As Frank would later note, this very posture of alienation, scorn and rebellion that looks impervious to manipulation is actually the one that gets us to buy stuff in the new millenium.
He offered a lexicon of coolness: "Revolution, liberation, fast companies thinking outside the box. It's images of tattooed executives snowboarding or riding mountain bikes in tornadoes or running shrieking down the halls of the great bureaucracies overturning desks and throwing paper.
"This is liberation marketing, a strategy that offers not just soaps that get your whites whiter, but soap that liberates you, and soda pops that are emblems of individualism. Liberation marketing imagines consumers breaking free from the routine of bureaucracy and hierarchy, getting in touch with our true selves, and finally, finding authenticity--that holiest of consumer grails," he said.
In Frank's view, coolness and liberation marketing have cunningly and insidiously co-opted the "niche that dissident voices used to occupy in the American cultural spectrum.
"As business replaces civil society, advertising is taking over the cultural functions that used to be filled by the left. 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," he said.
Coolness and liberation set out to conflate advertising and political analysis, style and substance. So, Frank said, "if the problems with capitalism are things like lack of authenticity and soul-deadening conformity, well, then capitalism can solve its own problems very effectively, and it has been solving them since the 1960s. If on the other hand your idea of capitalism's problems swings more heavily towards social, then you're talking about something else altogether."
He ended on a note at once arch and stern. "If we're ever going to challenge the power of the culture trust, what we're going to have to understand is that if you think the problem with capitalism is that it forces people to conform or to restrain their appetites, then I've got news for you: you don't have a problem with capitalism.
"You're going to do just fine in the corporate revolution," Frank said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 28, 2001.