How admen became hip

The Conquest of Cool
February 27, 1998

At the end of the conquest of cool - note the lack of capital letters - its author Thomas Frank bewails the lack of hard data and reliable statistics in the advertising industry. In an appendix of breathtaking fatuity he writes: "Advertising literature is maddeningly vague on precisely those aspects of the subject where historians require solid data". Rarely can St Luke's adage 'physician heal thyself' have been more apposite."

Few if any industries are more steeped in statistics and drowned in data. You can, if you wish, discover almost exactly how much every major advertiser has spent in every medium, where, and when and on which advertisements. You can find out how many people saw the advertisement, what kind of people they were, where they lived, where they shop, what brands they buy, where they holiday, which pets they own. Some of this data - and a vast amount more - is in the public domain, some of it needs to be bought. For "historians requiring solid data" all of it needs to be painfully tedious for Frank.

But then Frank, despite his protestations, is not that interested in solid data. He has a thesis. He believes the 1960s saw a radical change in US business culture. Until the 1960s, business executives were conformist, conservative and craven organisation men in grey flannel suits, dutifully imbibing martinis at lunch, never breaking ranks.

Suddenly they rebelled. Their rebellion, Frank argues, is reflected in 1960s advertising and fashion. He states that the conquest of cool is about these two, oddly united, manifestations of popular culture. But men's fashions merit only scant attention. Most of the book is devoted to advertising.

The leading admen of the 1950s - David Ogilvy and Rosser Reeves are Frank's especial bete-noirs - formulated rules and regulations which they claimed were "scientific" and would produce effective advertising. They both built mammoth, highly structured advertising agencies, which followed their rules. The result: their agencies produced oodles of uninspired, uncreative ads.

Then along came a rebel adman, Bill Bernbach, a visionary and seer. He too built an advertising agency, organisationally freer than the others, which produced wonderfully hip, creative advertisements as a result. Bernbach's brilliance, and his reputation, inspired a phalanx of followers, who together vanquished the dull demon of conformity and made advertising - and the world - a more creative, hippier (and happier) place forever. "The 1960s," opines Frank frankly, "are more than merely the homeland of hip, they are a commercial template for our times." Frank uses the words "hip" and "creative" as synonyms.

In the aforementioned fatuous appendix he produces a five-point definition of "hip" advertising, Using his definition he ploughs through magazines of the period counting those that are hip and those that are not - the hip ads being "creative", the others not. But hip and creative are not synonyms: and his five-point definition is subjective and nebulous.

However, the exercise was necessary because his thesis desperately lacks "solid data". Though he constantly quotes other commentators, who generally share his views, neither he nor they have searched for much solid data. Had they done so they would have seen the thesis come apart in their hands.

The most revealing clue to the weaknesses in Frank's case is to be found in the book's index: Procter & Gamble, the giant American soap and detergent conglomerate, merits only two entries. And one of those is a footnote which states: "Everyone in advertising is aware Procter & Gamble is the largest advertising spender."

Now that is sloppy. What matters is that Procter is indeed the largest advertising spender, and that Frank did not bother to check this by looking at the publicly available solid data - and what matters most of all is that he has written a book about advertising in which Procter & Gamble (and most other major advertisers) hardly figure. With a few exceptions, the advertisers upon whom he focuses are titchy. Similarly, the followers of Bill Bernbach whom Frank so idolises - Delia Femina, Gossage, Lois and even the celebrated Mary Wells - were bit-part actors in the advertising world. They came and quickly went, most of them without achieving much. That is not to say they were not talented. Some were immensely talented. Some, particularly Bernbach, were influential. And all were masterful self-publicists. But they were peripheral players.

Whereas Ogilvy's agency and Reeves's agency (Ted Bates) are still among the world's largest, Mary Wells's and Bill Bernbach's shops long ago slipped down the rankings. J Walter Thompson and the other global operations, which Frank so derides, still rule the roost (as he could easily have ascertained had he looked at the solid data). Nor have Procter & Gamble, General Motors and the other behemoths of American business been transformed into hotbeds of radical thinking.

During the 1960s, for profound social, political and historic reasons which, strangely, Frank does not analyse, a number of businessmen approached their work in a looser and less hierarchical way than was then - or is now - commonplace. They created some waves. But compared with the fundamental business revolution occurring now in the computer and information industries, the advertising and fashion rebels of the 1960s are as significant as ships that pass in the night.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Bozell UK Group.

The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip

Author - Thomas Frank
ISBN - 0 226 25991 9
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Price - £18.25
Pages - 267

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