Mr.Cool: An interview with Tom Frank

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True to his surname, Thomas Frank tells it like it is. A popular historian, social critic and founding editor of the The Baffler, a magazine of cultural criticism, Mr. Frank wields a razor-sharp pen and takes aim at the world of marketing. His first book, "The Conquest of Cool" (the University of Chicago Press, 1997) explored the '60s creative revolution in advertising. Mr. Frank's latest book, "One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, & the End of Economic Democracy" (Doubleday, November 2000), takes this "cool" thesis and applies it to business culture.

Advertising Age Reporter Richard Linnett sat down with Mr. Frank to discuss his critical views of the advertising industry. Excerpts from the book start on Page 48.

Advertising Age: Let's talk about "The Conquest of Cool" first.

Thomas Frank: The thesis of "The Conquest of Cool" basically was the fact that advertisers were co-opting some of the values of the cool culture and making them their own. And then developing them. In some ways, the admen were in there first, in the early '60s. But the larger point is that advertising and business culture in general accepts criticism of itself, embraces this criticism and runs with it. . . . Doyle Dane Bernbach embraced [a] critique of conformity and the hollowness of fashion and the emptiness of modern consuming life. That's where contemporary advertising got its start.

AA: In "One Market Under God," especially in Chapter 7, "Brand & the Intellectuals," you seem to find a significant change in advertising today.

Mr. Frank: I was talking about account planners, because I went to this convention of account planners. . . . The biggest change that I noticed there was that advertising people liked to talk about themselves by comparing what they do to other fields. In the '50s, as you know, it was a science. You had Rosser Reeves who wrote this book saying he had developed a science of advertising. . . .

In the '60s during the creative revolution, advertising people tended to focus on artists. They imagined themselves as artists. . . .

So, I went to this convention of account planners and the fantasy that they were embracing was anthropology. . . . They understood consumers as tribes, brands as symbols, and engaged in all this theorizing about the brand. But most importantly, they developed this approach of studying consumers in the way that an anthropologist does field work. . . .

They would talk about the focus group as this great democratic event and one person referred to the target market as your constituents as though you were an elected official of this constituency. . . . And I found that very curious, but it also meshed with the larger idea in the book which is what I call market populism. That's the big idea this time around. That's my brand. That's what I'm pushing here.

AA: OK, start pushing.

Mr. Frank: It's the idea that in addition to being a medium of exchange, the market is a medium of consent. So when we buy products or when we invest in the stock market . . . you're automatically endorsing what the companies and stock market does. . . . But it goes farther than that. It also tends to imagine capitalism, generally, as an inherently democratic force that overturns hierarchies, smashes elites, subverts any kind of established order. And this is something that you see a lot of in advertising discourse.

AA: Do you notice the brands that you buy? Do you pay attention to them?

Mr. Frank: Basically I do all my shopping at the thrift store, so brands don't mean a lot to me. Or at least not in the conventional sense. But I was going to say that consumerism is radical in a certain sense and that is when it does overturn established values and ways of doing things. Economists call this creative destruction. Vance Packard called it planned obsolescence. But advertising does constantly war on established values, and this is the main point of "The Conquest of Cool." Advertising has a vested interest in smashing conformity, and then erecting a new conformity. It constantly overturns the old tastes and old values.

AA: But where does it all start? Does culture begin with people and events or is it created by marketers?

Mr. Frank: Well, that's a huge question and I certainly couldn't resolve that. I don't know if anybody could. But I would say that one of the big differences between now and the 1990s and the 1960s is that then there was at least an honest to God youth culture out there in the streets that advertising had to try to reflect. . . . Nowadays I don't think it's that way. In some ways the advertising people are ahead of the curve. . . . As recently as the early '90s, there was still a hip culture that you could talk about that was independent of advertising. In '91 [the grunge rock band] Nirvana hit the national consciousness. Before that you could honestly say there were these subcultures that were just not noticed, that nobody cared about. One of the things that defines the '90s is that the commercial culture decided it just had nothing to fear from the counterculture and subculture and just started looking everywhere it could for the new thing and you're at a point now where the advertising people are so current and so ahead of the game that there's very little that escapes them.

AA: Is there a danger? If advertising gets too far ahead of the curve, what will it latch on to that is real?

Mr. Frank: I don't know. I'm waiting for that day to happen. I think that will be really funny. There's this kind of desperation you feel for them when they're looking for the next authentic thing. What they're always looking for, of course, is something that stands outside advertising. Something that is pure, unsullied, authentic. And what this speaks to is . . . advertising embracing this critique of itself. Everybody wants this life that is beyond advertising, beyond consumption, that is in touch with the real. Everybody wants to be a non-conformist, to be authentic. And advertising both deals in that and yet ruins that, right? So when advertising starts selling us something as a way to be ourselves and be real . . . it automatically is going to fail. It's a contradiction in terms. And so there's this constant desire to find new forms that stand outside the marketplace that they can then embrace.

AA: So is there a place for advertising in the world as you see it? Do you think advertising can be better or more accurate or more genuine? Or is it something that is definitely pernicious and not useful?

Mr. Frank: I don't know. I look at the world as a historian and a historian of culture. . . . I sort of look at advertising and marvel at the way it works and try to figure it out. . . . I'm not in advertising and even if I was, I still wouldn't have any say. It's a huge industry. One person doesn't make a difference.

AA: What do you think is going to happen in the future? Can you predict anything?

Mr. Frank: One thing is for sure and that is that there is this continual obsoleting of ways of speaking to us about rebellion, about authenticity, about being yourself, that will keep going, and they'll constantly be looking for new ways of expressing that. But I don't have too many predictions about where advertising is going. All this talk of consumer democracy will probably implode in the next few years. The dot-com stuff is already falling apart. We're sort of coming down off that high, and the crazy mad language of the last 10 years.

See adage.com for more of this Q&A with Thomas Frank

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