Selling Hip

I've long believed that advertisements--our "fables of abundance," as historian Jackson Lears recently described them--are central to the way we Americans understand the world. Astonished at advertising's pervasiveness and convinced of its malevolence, I once read a series of deeply pessimistic books about the advertising industry and its effects on American life. Everyone agreed, it seemed, that advertising was doing terrible things to Americans: it was making us a boring, homogeneous people; it was transforming a nation of proud individuals into a land of gray-flannel conformists.It's a standard complaint, of course. But the letter I'm now holding in my hands, signed by a "Junior Planner" for a New York advertising agency, seems to stand it on its head. It is his job, Mr. Planner announces, to help his agency "produce more effective, focused, and `cutting-edge' advertising." Cutting-edge? On Madison Avenue? "Perhaps you have seen our new Saab campaign featuring the animation brilliance of Jean-Paul Phillipe," he continues. He means Jean-Philippe Delhomme, but never mind. "We pride ourselves on doing what others normally would not..." In fact I have seen the campaign; it's been annoying me for some weeks now. One Saab billboard advises me to "Drive in the face of convention"; a magazine ad recommends that I choose a Saab in order to "Peel off your inhibitions" and "Find your own road"; a cartoon commercial being shown on TV depicts an existentialist yuppie throwing over his conventional job, shocking the bourgeoisie at a stuffy dinner party, and rebelling against logocentrism generally in order to find himself -- behind the wheel of a Saab, of course. I don't drive a Saab myself. Even if I could afford one, I can imagine many better uses of $30,000, which is why my vehicle of choice is a 1984 Nissan. But Mr. Junior Planner is not writing to scold me because I've been such a bad consumer, or to take issue with me because I've made a career of flouting the recommendations of advertising, or even to accuse me of being a communist because I buy my clothes at thrift stores. No, he is writing because he thinks I'm cool. He's heard that I work at an "ahead of the pack" or "borderline dangerous" publication. (By this he means the Baffler, a journal of cultural criticism.) Far from finding my nonconformity disturbing or threatening to the interests of his agency or his industry, Mr. Planner finds it enticing: people like me put him and his company in touch with the attitudes, slang, and looks they need to maintain their clients' "ahead of the pack" image.Nor is he alone on Madison Avenue. Every day, it seems, one reads about some new outrage perpetrated by the hip bomb-throwers of the advertising industry. In a recent New York Times it was Jay Chiat, the founder and, until recently, the head of Chiat/Day, perhaps the coolest of cool agencies. A full-page ad for the agency proclaimed proudly that, yes, Jay Chiat breaks all the rules: he "will cut off a client's tie if he thinks it's ugly." He is "the man who taught us to squash conventionality like ripe fruit." He is also the mastermind behind a number of the hippest "ahead of the pack" ad campaigns of the last few years--most annoyingly, that of Fruitopia. Rule-breaking, convention-defying, and yourself-being, however daring and subversive they sound, are now clearly the province of America's official cultural masters, the same guys who used to go to work in gray flannel uniforms. Products aren't sold by bespectacled authority figures in lab coats, but by screaming tattooed skateboarders, by rock 'n' roll sound tracks, by liberated youngsters snickering at the lame consumer choices made by their uptight elders. As a recent ad for Marlboro puts it: Cowboys still sing cowboy songs. Only today it's not just with a lonely harmonica. It's with a cranked-up STRATOCASTER that howls, kicks, and does everything it can to scream, "Let the STAMPEDE begin!"For a while I tried to keep track of ads and commercials that promoted products as implements of rule-breaking, convention-defying, and personality fulfillment, but before too long I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of rebel campaigns. Toward the end, it was no longer just a matter of Reebok letting "U.B.U." or Pepsi-Cola inviting us to join the uninhibited Pepsi Generation: it was Southwest Airlines boasting that its employees had refused to color within the lines when in kindergarten; it was Dodge doing the Nietzsche thing and announcing, "We questioned everything."Sometime in the recent past, hip was transmogrified; what used to be a style of resistance has become the official philosophy of corporate America, from the ponytails and pierced noses of the cyber-boardrooms of California to the madcap tie-snipping and convention-squashing of Madison Avenue. You can see its effects every week in the new generation of business magazines like Wired, and in the new generation of goateed, rule-breaking entrepreneurs celebrated by Forbes. You can read its intellectual expression in the bellowing books of business guru Tom Peters, whose rage for disorder is expressed in a steady Mao-like chant of "revolution!"But strangely enough, the country's putative cultural opposition doesn't seem to have caught on. To judge from most of the alternative press and organs of dissent like the Utne Reader, the problem with American society is its puritanism and conformity. Thus the cry of the dissenters is identical to that of Saab and Marlboro: tune in to that great cranked-up Stratocaster in your soul and peel away your inhibitions. It is a matter of lifestyle, a question of what you consume and where, how, and with whom you consume it. Dissident and official voices now chant an almost identical refrain: I am hipster, watch me consume! However "alternative" the avatars of the American "underground" proclaim themselves to be, there is, ultimately, no tangible difference between their understanding of society and the convention-squashing vision of advertising executives. Figures like Henry Rollins (Powerbook, Gap) and William S. Burroughs (Nike) move unproblematically between the two worlds, oscillating easily between being icons of dissidence and product spokesmen. As a result our culture is now dominated by what might be called an orthodoxy of perpetual transgression. Our world is awash with rebels: they stare insolently back at us from TV sitcoms, commercials, and movie publicity posters; their hymns to consumer liberation tinkle softly in dentists' offices and boom from the cars of juvenile delinquents; items from cameras to cars are now routinely dubbed "the rebel."In the only field where rebellion matters, though, the '90s are shaping up as a singularly bad time for the American nonconformist. However we may fantasize about liberating ourselves behind the wheel of a Saab or at an all-night rave somewhere, we are manifestly incapable of articulating a politics of resistance. Corporate interests control our culture and our world of work as in no previous period of American history, and yet our discontent allows us to do little more than choose MCI over AT&T. Even the "conformist" 1950s, whose icons are now universal sepia-tint shorthand for the hopelessly repressed prealternative ages, appear radical by contrast. Dissent against the rule of business? In the world of TV, which now virtually monopolizes what we know about events outside our immediate lives, it just doesn't exist. And, with the help of our inalienable American right to be ignorant of history, most of us probably think it never existed. The marketplace is God, omniscient and eternal; the businessman, relaxing in glorious slow-mo as he is flown by smiling underlings from one international meeting to another, is His anointed servant, looking down on our happy little rebellions and seeing to it that we can mosh with Pepsi if we're tired of Coke's phat new bottle. Resisting or even questioning the wisdom of capitalism is becoming literally unthinkable.

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