[sixties-l] Perpetual revolution: liberation marketing

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Wed May 16 2001 - 15:02:59 EDT

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    Le Monde diplomatique

    May 2001

    Perpetual revolution

    by TOM FRANK *

      * Author of The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago Press, Chicago,
    1997) and One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and
    the end of Economic Democracy (Doubleday, New York, 2000)

    One of the most tenacious myths of the "culture wars" that have been going
    on in the United States for over 30 years is that youth counterculture has
    some sort of innate transgressive power; that the eternal battle between
    hippie and hardhat, disco-dweller and churchgoer, individualist and
    conformist, is every bit as important a struggle as the one between
    classes once was.

    This belief in the significance of the war between hip and square is
    accepted as holy writ not only by avatars of academic cultural studies,
    but by our entertainment and marketing industries as well. To tune in to
    prime-time TV programming at any time during the 1990s was to hear
    corporate America, through its advertising, beat the drum for
    "revolution", call boldly for the breaking of "rules", and insist
    defiantly on being "extreme" despite the bosses and suits and
    church-ladies. Every product - from powerful four-wheel drives to tennis
    shoes to lemon-lime soda pops - was presented as the cherished
    accoutrement of youth rebellion, consumed to a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo or
    a favourite passage from Jack Kerouac or the spicy, sassy rhymes of 1990s
    street culture. Cordless drills that finally let you be yourself. Perfume
    dealers who liken themselves to indigenous peoples. Software makers
    determined to give power to the people. Alternative stockbrokers.

    Nike, notorious for having its shoes made in sweatshops by Asian
    teenagers, describes itself to American teenagers as a bearer of
    "revolution". Both Apple computers and the Gap clothing stores have
    decorated their corporate facades with the images of various avant-garde
    celebrities. Clenched fists are everywhere in evidence. Seven-Up imagines
    a worldwide evil conspiracy determined to prevent consumers from drinking

    Why is American commercial culture is so aggressively cool these days? One
    explanation, at least, is demographics. The advertisers study youth
    culture in order to talk to youth. They mimic the status system of the
    American high school because that is the way to sell more Sprite, or more
    Reeboks, or more Levis. But this theory does not account for the broader
    acceptance of hipness by the advertising industry or the intensely cool
    culture of the ad agencies themselves or the deployment of defiance to
    sell products to consumers who are more than 18 years-old. They don't play
    those Hendrix songs to sell four-wheel drives to kids at high school.

    Hip culture clearly expresses something far more fundamental about
    consumerism than marketers' interest in young people. Since the 1920s
    consumerism has given voice to an order in revolt against older,
    production-oriented values. It emphasised pleasure and gratification
    against the restraint and repression of the puritan tradition. It
    celebrates fashion and obsolescence instead of thrift and continuity.
    Youth is valued over age. Change over tradition. The new over the old. The
    hip over the square.


    Advertising's obsession with hipness also arises from the peculiar
    problems of the advertising industry. Since the 1960s advertising
    executives have consistently found that their target audiences quickly
    grow jaded and doubtful of the claims that advertising makes. Advertising
    interrupts TV programmes. Advertising phones us during dinner time. It is
    often insulting and stupid. And there is far, far too much of it. These
    days average Americans are exposed to about a million sales pitches a
    year. Cutting through this clutter and getting around the audience's
    distrust have become the industry's two greatest problems.

    To get over them, advertising people have erected a cult of creativity in
    which advertising must shock and startle in order to deliver its payload.
    Advertising reveres the new not only out of structural necessity - today's
    product is always better than last year's model - but also because novelty
    is the only way to get a sales message across. As a result, the people who
    craft advertising tend to be extremely hip: the unstructured office is an
    invention of Madison Avenue, as is the now omnipresent tradition of casual
    dress in the workplace.

    French advertising executive Jean-Marie Dru described the now-standard
    creative procedure in his 1996 book Disruption (1). In order to sell
    whatever deodorant or allergy remedy it is he has been assigned to sell,
    the adman must identify some social "convention" (one of those "ready-made
    ideas that maintain the status quo"), then smash it in an orgasmic process
    that Dru calls "disruption". "Stir the pot, alter the rules, wake up the
    consumer and create change", he says - all this to figure out a way to
    align the brand for which he toils with some larger "vision" of human

    Successful brands, then, are those that declare themselves at war with
    social conventions of all kinds. Dru lovingly describes commercials in
    which prudish old folks are humiliated by pleasure-loving youngsters, in
    which Guinness beer is adopted by young nonconformists as "a new way of
    expressing their own individualism," and in which old-fashioned
    hierarchical management ideas are derided by Macintosh, whom Dru describes
    as "an antiestablishment company."

    One convention, though, is specifically off-limits to the corporate
    "disrupter": brand loyalty. "In fact, there is no paradox, no
    contradiction between disruption and increasing brand loyalty," Dru
    reassures us. "If companies and brands do not disrupt, there is an
    increased risk that consumers will become blas and lost interest in
    brands. With disruption, their interest and loyalty is renewed."

    The process is presented as at once mundane and apocalyptic. Every
    management writer these days is calling himself a "revolutionary". But
    some people have something much greater in mind: the colonisation by
    business of nothing less than the notion of social justice. For a brand's
    vision to succeed, Dru asserts, it must be "made of dreams", a process
    which he illustrates with quotes from various figures of the historical
    left. And with the left in terminal retreat, a whole array of glamorous
    and disruptive cultural niches has been neatly opened to corporate
    occupation: Benetton has managed to equate its brand with the fight
    against racism, Apple with that against technocracy; similarly, Pepsi owns
    youth rebellion, The Body Shop owns compassion, Reebok owns nonconformity,
    and MTV owns underground credibility. We have brands for social justice
    instead of movements.

    The liberation marketing of the 1990s worked by recasting itself as a
    critical discourse, a critique of consumer society. Hip advertising
    acknowledges that there's something wrong with life under capitalism. It
    recognises that consumer society hasn't given us the things it promised or
    solved the problems it was supposed to do: that consumerism is in fact a
    gigantic sham. Lot of hard work for no reason. Rat race. Treadmill. And
    all it offers in return are soaps that get your whites whiter.


    This is where liberation marketing comes in. It imagines consumers, with
    the help of the brand, breaking free from the old enforcers of order,
    tearing loose from the shackles with which industrial order has bound us,
    escaping the routine of bureaucracy and hierarchy, getting in touch with
    our true selves. And finally finding authenticity, that holiest of
    consumer grails.

    The billion-dollar megaphone of advertising goes on telling us that the
    problem with society is conformity and that the answer is carnival, as
    long as there remains a discretionary dollar in the last teenager's
    allowance. If our famously-fragmented society has anything approaching a
    master narrative, it's more of a constant struggle, not with the
    communists, but with the puritanical, spirit-crushing, fakeness-pushing
    power of consumer society itself. We resist by going to eat in "ethnic"
    chain restaurants or watching Madonna videos or consorting with more
    authentic people in our four-wheel drives. Or simply by celebrating the
    consumers who do these things.

    Sociologist Daniel Bell once declared that the conflict between the
    enforced efficiency of the workplace and the hedonistic blow-off of our
    leisure time was one of capitalism's most devastating "cultural
    contradictions". But now we know better: the market solves the market's
    problems, at least superficially. Criticism of capitalism has become, in a
    very strange way, capitalism's lifeblood. It's a closed ideological
    system, within which criticism can be at least symbolically addressed and

    The larger corporate picture of the 1990s was not about revolution,
    smashing rules, changing everything, empowering the individual, taking it
    to the max, and so on. It was the era of great media monopolies, of the
    rise of Microsoft, of runaway conglomeration in banking, broadcasting,
    advertising, book publishing, newspaper publishing, and many more. And
    also the time of the withering of the labour movement and the final death
    of the idea of a powerful redistributionist state. Accompanying these
    broader changes was the incessant intrusion of corporate power into more
    and more aspects of everyday life.

    Americans worked harder and for longer in the 1990s than at any time since
    1945; they saw more ads on more surfaces than ever before; they took more
    personality tests and drug tests; they rang up ever greater household
    debts. They also had less power than at any time in the last 50 years over
    the conditions in which they lived and worked. It is no longer uncommon to
    see a family drive down the street in a sponsored car, a car that is
    covered entirely with corporate logos.

    In such an environment our anger mounted and mounted. And, out of the
    liberation marketers of Madison Avenue, those who have prevailed in
    American life are the ones who have learned to channel this anger to their
    own purposes.


    (1) Jean-Marie Dru, Disruption: bousculer les conventions et deplacer le
    marche, Village mondial, Paris, 1997.

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