Overturning tastes: An interview with author 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 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.

Advertising Age: Let's talk about "The Conquest of Cool'' first.
Thomas Frank: "The Conquest of Cool'' was my dissertation. It had a different name, but it was my Ph.D. project [in American history] at the University of Chicago. The thesis of "The Conquest of Cool'' basically was the fact that advertisers were, you could say, 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. And they do this to this day. Remember, Vance Packard and his book "The Hidden Persuaders'' and his next book, which was called, "The Waste Maker'' about planned obsolescence? Well, some marketers at that time were upset about these books, but others, most notably Doyle Dane Bernbach embraced that critique of conformity and the hollowness of fashion and the emptiness of modern consuming life. And I think that's where contemporary advertising got its start.

Talking about authenticity and rebellion and especially about youth culture: That was the template for today's consumer culture.

And in a lot of ways these advertisers were there before the actual counterculture. They were talking about these issues and had decided that youth was the perfect symbol to symbolize all this stuff as early as '63, during the Beach Boys' era.

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: Well, there, I was talking about account planners, because I went to this convention of account planners. And at the time I didn't know very much about account planning, it was a new thing in America.

AA: What year was that?
Mr. Frank: That was '98. The conference was in Boston. And I thought it was fascinating. 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. He could tell exactly what worked and what didn't. And advertising at that time used scientific allusions. It would show men in lab coats telling you why you should buy this brand of shaving cream rather than another. Even in the most inappropriate circumstances, they used the aura of science.

In the '60s during the creative revolution, advertising people tended to focus on artists. They imagined themselves as artists and also imagined artists as this kind of exemplary consuming figure. This is one of the weird things that advertising people tend to think of themselves. There's always this weird parallel between what they imagine the model consumer to be like and how they imagine themselves to be. So at the same time they thought art was both what they were, what they were doing, especially the people on the creative side, and also it was the way to sell things, the way to understand consumption.

So, I went to this convention of account planners and the fantasy that they were embracing was anthropology and I say fantasy even though some people there were actually trained anthropologists and had gone through graduate school and all the rest of it. But 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.

When they talked about their focus groups, they would even use the term ethnography. Very curious.

But the other funny thing about it is that they tended to use the language of democracy and of consent. Which you do see a lot in academia, but I think they were using it quite differently. 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 it was your job to go to bat for them and present their case to the public and stuff like that. 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.

I'm here to tell you about market populism.

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, even in . . . a form most removed from democracy, like when you buy a mutual fund or you have your money in a 401K or something like that, you're automatically endorsing what the companies and stock market does. You're endorsing the Wall Street way. When you ride in a car made in Detroit, you're endorsing the way that Detroit has conducted its business. And this is something that you see a lot of in the op-ed pages and of course in industry magazines, present company excepted. 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. You remember a book a few years ago by Jean Marie Dru called "Disruption''? I don't know if people followed his recommendations or if he was just describing what's going on in the advertising world but, one way or the other, he was right on the money I think. I say that because what he recommended was that people think of brands as movements for social justice. [Laughs] So instead of the civil rights movement you have a brand. I forget which one. And he names all these brands that have captured all the various niches of the political left. Being a person on the left, this was extremely disturbing but at the same time it was very accurate. That is precisely what a lot of these brands were trying to do in the 1990s.

AA: So the idea is, in terms of market populism, that the market is really absorbing and swallowing up this rhetoric of revolution and owning it.
Mr. Frank: They've gone much farther than that. They've gone a lot farther than that, they've embraced just about every aspect of this idea of warring on hierarchy, overturning old elites and old social forms. I mean, geez, you talk about the word revolution, it was hot in the early '90s. The word extreme, you saw this everywhere. The word radical. There was a brand of chewing gum called Radical Red that I saw a few years ago. And all these terms of course die out very quickly because they become cliches so fast.

AA: Is there any reality in any of the radicalness of any of these things? And if there is or there isn't, what's the standard for being radical?
Mr. Frank: I'm kind of a square person. I believe in the welfare state and if I lived in a European country, I'd probably vote for socialist candidates or something like that. I'm not radical in any of the senses that advertising uses the word. I don't skateboard, I'm not very cool. I don't really buy the right brands.

AA: Do you notice the brands that you buy? Do you pay attention to them?
Mr. Frank: I have to tell you, as a consumer, I buy really strange brands. I'm interested in things for really odd reasons. I'm like an ad person's nightmare. Say for example, I go the liquor store I look for discontinued brands that were a big deal in the 1950s. Something like that. You can still find them every now and then . . .

AA: Like Night Train?
Mr. Frank: No, not that. Not that. But anyhow, it's a long story but 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.

And for the last 30 years in this country we've had these political culture wars where parties have fought back and forth, with the right wingers generally defending both markets and family values. And for some reason it's never really dawned on these people that those two things don't go together. Markets threaten family values. The counterculture was not making obscene movies and ads encouraging drugs and sex. The hippies weren't doing that, the market was. The market has been the great subverter of those values that people like William Bennett hold so dear. And I think they're just now starting to figure that out. That the market is constantly overturning values and setting up new ones. That's the name of the game.

AA: But where does it all start? Does culture begin with people and events, or is it created by marketers?
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 and often times they did a very poor job and all the stories from the '60s about the hip youngsters laughing at the ads because their portrayal of youth culture was so crappy. Nowadays I don't think it's that way. In some ways the advertising people are ahead of the curve. Maybe that's just me. I live in Chicago, I don't watch a lot of TV. But 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. I think before that you could honestly say there were these subcultures that were just not noticed, that nobody cared about. And this is 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 stuff,the new thing and I think 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.

As you know, there's a whole variety of agency professional whose job it is to seek out the new trends in youth culture here in New York before they ever get to a place like Chicago. The first I'm going to see of them out there where I live is on TV or in the movies. It's certainly not going to be on the street.

AA: Is there a danger? If advertising gets too far ahead of the curb, 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, that is unsullied, that is authentic. And what this speaks to is that critique that I mentioned earlier. Advertising embracing this critique of itself. Everybody wants this life that is beyond advertising, that is beyond consumption, that is in touch with the real. Everybody wants to be a non-conformist, to be themselves, 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 and all the rest of it, 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.

And I remember--here's a kind of a sad story--I once spoke to group--it's not a sad, it's a funny story--I spoke to a group of snowboarders in the mid '90s, and they were very unhappy because they were on the cusp of being commercialized. It was still an underground sport at the time, but a lot of attention was just starting to be paid to them. They were setting up things like the X Games and extreme sports were becoming hip and a lot of these people were really worried about it. They were very unhappy that this was happening to them . . . and they had me come and speak to them and the question [that] they wanted to know was what can we do about this? And the awful thing was, there was nothing they could do about it because the more they wanted to resist this and the more they wanted to stay away from advertising, the more attractive that made them to advertising because they were the last un-co-opted, un-commodified space in the world. They're all into "keeping it real.'' And that phrase, "keeping it real,'' was the advertising slogan of the '90s par excellence because it was both impossible for advertising to keep it real and yet, at the same time it was what advertising so urgently desired.

AA: Have ad agencies asked you to talk to them?
Mr. Frank: Yeah, I have been asked to speak, I've just never done it. I do speak at industry groups. I have no problem with that. Look, I'm a historian. They can come to the bookstore and listen to me talk for free or they can pay me some money and I'll go give them the whole slide show and show them all the stuff from the '60s and I like to--and frankly, I'd really like doing that. I like hanging around those people. It's funny, I generally like advertising people as a group. I think they're sympathetic and they're smart and they tend to be liberal. I get along very well with them.

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 as a historian of culture. That's the way I think about things. I sort of look at advertising and marvel at the way it works and try to figure it out. But I would never have any say in it. 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: When I read your criticism I think Tom Frank obviously believes advertising is not good for society. Is this true?
Mr. Frank: Yeah, I think clearly advertising teaches a lot of things that are not good. I just remember when I was a child and the dumb things I wanted because of advertising and those were really clumsy stupid ads when you think about it.

AA: What do you think is going to happen in the future? Can you predict anything?
Mr. Frank: What's going to happen? 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. I think 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.

AA: Will advertising continue to absorb criticism?
Mr. Frank: Well it absorbs a certain kind of criticism, the old mass society critique, and one of the reasons that the mass society critique is still with us is because of advertising. I think that's the only reason. The people in academia don't write about it any more. It's been dropped since about the early '70s. But advertising has stuck with it, as its sort of house critique of what's wrong with life under capitalism. You're alienated and you're not allowed to be yourself and all this nonsense. I was up at Harvard yesterday and I was eavesdropping on some undergraduates, brand new Ivy League students and they were repeating the mass society critique almost verbatim out of Vance Packard or one of those books from the 1950s. Where could they have gotten that from? The only place that it's still repeated is in advertising.

Copyright November 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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