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Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism pt4

By Benga, Oct 10, 2008 | |
  1. Benga
    This is a study of business thought, but in its consequences it is necessarily a study of cultural dissent as well: its promise, its meaning, its possibilities, and, most important, its limitations. And it is, above all, the story of the bohemian cultural style's trajectory from adversarial to hegemonic; the story of hip's mutation from native language of the alienated to that of advertising.

    It is more than a little odd that, in this age of nuance and negotiated readings, we lack a serious history of co-optation, one that understands corporate thought as something other than a cartoon. Co-optation remains something we vilify almost automatically; the historical particulars which permit or discourage co-optation—or even the obvious fact that some things are co-opted while others are not—are simply not addressed. Regardless of whether the co-opters deserve our vilification or not, the process by which they make rebel subcultures their own is clearly an important element of contemporary life. And while the ways in which business anticipated and reacted to the youth culture of the 1960s may not reveal much about the individual experiences of countercultural participants, examining them closely does allow a more critical perspective on the phenomenon of co-optation, as well as on the value of certain strategies of cultural confrontation, and, ultimately, on the historical meaning of the counterculture.

    Many in American business, particularly in the two industries studied here, imagined the counterculture not as an enemy to be undermined or a threat to consumer culture but as a hopeful sign, a symbolic ally in their own struggles.


    To begin to take co-optation seriously is instantly to discard one of the basic shibboleths of sixties historiography. As it turns out, many in American business, particularly in the two industries studied here, imagined the counterculture not as an enemy to be undermined or a threat to consumer culture but as a hopeful sign, a symbolic ally in their own struggles against the mountains of dead-weight procedure and hierarchy that had accumulated over the years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, leaders of the advertising and menswear businesses developed a critique of their own industries, of over-organization and creative dullness, that had much in common with the critique of mass society which gave rise to the counterculture. Like the young insurgents, people in more advanced reaches of the American corporate world deplored conformity, distrusted routine, and encouraged resistance to established power. They welcomed the youth-led cultural revolution not because they were secretly planning to subvert it or even because they believed it would allow them to tap a gigantic youth market (although this was, of course, a factor), but because they perceived in it a comrade in their own struggles to revitalize American business and the consumer order generally. If American capitalism can be said to have spent the 1950s dealing in conformity and consumer fakery, during the decade that followed, it would offer the public authenticity, individuality, difference, and rebellion.

    If we really want to understand American culture in the sixties, we must acknowledge at least the possibility that the co-opters had it right, that Madison Avenue's vision of the counterculture was in some ways correct.

    hip consumerism

    Advertising and menswear, the two industries with which this book are directly concerned, were deeply caught up in both the corporate and cultural changes that defined the sixties. The story in men's clothing is simple enough and is often cited as an indicator of changing times along with movies, novels, and popular music: the fifties are remembered, rather stereotypically, as a time of gray flannel dullness, while the sixties were an era of sartorial gaudiness. The change in the nation's advertising is less frequently remembered as one of the important turning points between the fifties and sixties, but the changes here were, if anything, even more remarkable, more significant, and took place slightly earlier than those in music and youth culture. Both industries were on the cutting edge of the shifts in corporate practice in the 1960s, and both were also conspicuous users of countercultural symbolism—they were, if you will, the leading lights of "co-optation."

    But both industries' reaction to youth culture during the sixties was more complex than that envisioned by the co-optation theory. Both menswear and advertising were paralyzed by similar problems in the 1950s: they suffered from a species of creative doldrums, an inability to move beyond the conventions they had invented for themselves and to tap into that wellspring of American economic dynamism that Fortune called "the permanent revolution." Both industries underwent "revolutions" in their own right during the 1960s, with vast changes in corporate practice, in productive flexibility, and especially in that intangible phenomenon known as "creativity"—and in both cases well before the counterculture appeared on the mass-media scene. In the decade that followed, both industries found a similar solution to their problems: a commercial version of the mass society theory that made of alienation a motor for fashion. Seeking a single metaphor by which to characterize the accelerated obsolescence and enhanced consumer friendliness to change which were their goals, leaders in both fields had already settled on "youth" and "youthfulness" several years before saturation TV and print coverage of the "summer of love" introduced middle America to the fabulous new lifestyles of the young generation.

    The counterculture's simultaneous craving for authenticity and suspicion of tradition seemed to make it an ideal vehicle for a vast sea-change in American consuming habits.


    Then, in 1967 and 1968, advertising and menswear executives seized upon the counterculture as the preeminent symbol of the revolution in which they were engaged, embellishing both their trade literature and their products with images of rebellious, individualistic youth. While leaders of both industries appreciated the demographic bonanza that the baby boom represented, their concentration on the symbols of first youth and then culture-rebel owed more to new understandings of consumption and business culture than to a desire to sell the kids. The counterculture served corporate revolutionaries as a projection of the new ideology of business, a living embodiment of attitudes that reflected their own. In its hostility to established tastes, the counterculture seemed to be preparing young people to rebel against whatever they had patronized before and to view the cycles of the new without the suspicion of earlier eras. Its simultaneous craving for authenticity and suspicion of tradition seemed to make the counterculture an ideal vehicle for a vast sea-change in American consuming habits. Through its symbols and myths, leaders of the menswear and advertising industries imagined a consumerism markedly different from its 1950s permutation, a hip consumerism driven by disgust with mass society itself.

    Capitalism was entering the space age in the sixties, and Organization Man was a drag not only as a parent, but as an executive. The old values of caution, deference, and hierarchy drowned creativity and denied flexibility; they enervated not only the human spirit but the consuming spirit and the entrepreneurial spirit as well. And when business leaders cast their gaze onto the youth culture bubbling around them, they saw both a reflection of their own struggle against the stifling bureaucracy of the past and an affirmation of a dynamic new consuming order that would replace the old. For these business thinkers, the cultural revolution that has come to be symbolized by the counterculture seemed an affirmation of their own revolutionary faiths, a reflection of their own struggles to call their corporate colleagues into step with the chaotic and frenetically changing economic universe.

    The revolutions in menswear and advertising—as well as the larger revolution in corporate thought—ran out of steam when the great postwar prosperity collapsed in the early 1970s. In a larger sense, though, the corporate revolution of the 1960s never ended. In the early 1990s, while the nation was awakening to the realities of the hyperaccelerated global information economy, the language of the business revolution of the sixties (and even some of the individuals who led it) made a triumphant return. Although on the surface menswear seemed to have settled back into placidity, the reputation of the designers and creative rebels who made their first appearance during the decade of revolt were at their zenith in the 1990s; men's clothes were again being presented to the public as emblems of nonconformity; and the magazines which most prominently equated style with rebellion (Details and GQ, the latter of which had been founded at the opening of the earlier revolution in 1957) were enjoying great success. The hottest advertising agencies of the late 1980s and early 1990s were, again, the small creative firms; a new company of creative rebels came to dominate the profession; and advertising that offered to help consumers overcome their alienation, to facilitate their nonconformity, and which celebrated rule-breaking and insurrection became virtually ubiquitous. Most important, the corporate theory of the 1990s makes explicit references to sixties management theory and the experiences of the counterculture. Like the laid-back executives who personify it, the ideology of information capitalism is a child of the 1960s; the intervening years of the 1970s and 1980s may have delayed the revolution, but they hardly defused its urgency.

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