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Thomas Frank. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 1997.

After the 1987 stock market crash, pundits labeled the 1980s the greedy decade and wondered how the idealistic baby boomers of the 1960s had transformed themselves into materialistic money grubbers of the 1980s. Thomas Frank’s answer is that, rather than having been co-opted by the system, 1960s youth had always been bound to consumerism even as they rebelled against conformity. He takes issue with histories that set up a binary opposition between conformist 1950s and liberating youth 1960s since many individuals, such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), William H. Whyte Jr.’s The Organization Man (1956), Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957), Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957) and Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise (1960)which argued against the rule-bound preachments of Rosser Reeves and David Oglivy (Theory X) and argued that human organization could recognize workers’ ingenuity and motivated by progress toward an objective rather than fear of punishmen (Theory Y).  had critiqued conformity and mass society before the 1960s, and well before 1965, when the counter-culture had made its main mark on the public. These mass culture critiques were enormously popular, a democratization of what Roland Marchand would consider being an “apostle of modernity” and Jackson Lears “evasive banality”

By the late 1950s, then, the stage was set for a creative revolt against conformity. The Doyle Dane Bernbach (headed by Bill Bernbach )agency for Volkswagen began the opening salvo (1950 with their famous Volkswagen ads. Cars were designed and advertised to resemble hardware of the Cold War: streamlined, finned like airplanes, fitted with elaborate-looking controls. Oldsmobile offered “rocket action” and “radical new Turbo Thrust” engines. In 1959, instead of elongating the Volkswagen, Bernbach mocked the car’s distinctive shape and clear attitude toward its look. “It’s awful, take our word for it.” And mocked its lack of visible change since the 1950s. If you wanted a car that sticks out a little in a suburban neighborhood, you probably wouldn’t buy a Volkswagen Station Wagon. But in case you haven’t noticed, the world doesn’t look like this” (1965). Others included Howard Gosssage who worked for Irish Whiskey, Fina gas, Qantas airlines, “If you’re driving down the road and you see a Fine station, and it’s on your side so you don’t have to make a U-turn through traffic, and there aren’t six cars waiting and you need gas or something, please stop in” (78).

How do you explain the counter culture if it’s not a rejection of the 1950s, why in the 1960s did it emerge the way it did? While the counterculturists defended pleasure-seeking, they also attacked what they saw as the evil of consumerism. How is this paradox to be explained? “There is a moral tradition that not only defends the pursuit of pleasure, but associates it directly with the highest moral and spiritual ideals. This tradition of thought was represented historically by Romanticism. It is very much alive, with its last significant efflorescence occurring in the 1960s in the form of the movement we know as the ‘counterculture.” To some extent the paradox can be accounted for by the fact that the counterculturalist, just like the spokespersons for the conventional morality they claimed to reject, held onto that erroneous view of that consumerism involved status envy, acquisitiveness, and materialism, whilst being perhaps understandably reluctant to recognize that their own high valuation of pleasure might be connected in some way with their experience as the first generation to be reared in a climate of widespread affluence. Thus, the Romantics’ (counter-culture’s) principal objection to consumption was not that it was prompted by a search for pleasure (even less that it gave pleasure) but that pleasure seeking was not being taken serious enough. In other words, Romanticism (embodied by the counterculture) gives the highest possible legitimation to the pursuit of pleasure, especially the pursuit of imaginatively medicated pleasure, [which is where consumerism impulses stem] whilst condemning hedonism (Colin Campbell “Consuming Goods and the Good of Consuming,” Glickman 27).

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