A) Answer RTT Questions (138-139)B) Embed an image of an advertisement (or describe it in detail) and explain how it illustrates Frank’s point of dissension being a commodity. (To insert an image, copy and paste it into the dialogue box you are typing into).
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Commodify Your Dissent
“Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules.” “This is different. Different is good.” “The
Line Has Been Crossed.” “Resist the Usual.” If you are guessing that these defiant
declarations must come from the Che Guevara / Jack Kerouac Institute of World
Revolution and Extreme Hipness, you’re in for a surprise, because they are actually
advertising slogans for such corporations as Burger King, Arby’s, Toyota, Clash Clear
Malt, and Young & Rubicam. Just why huge corporations are aping the language of
the Beats and the 1960s counterculture is the centerpiece of Thomas Frank’s thesis that
the countercultural idea has become “an official aesthetic of consumer society.”
Commodifying the decades-long youth habit of dissenting against corporate America,
corporate America has struck back by adopting the very attitudes that once meant
revolution, Frank believes, thus turning to its own capitalist uses the postures of
rebellion. Indeed, when Apple can persuade you to buy a computer because its guy is
just plain cooler than some IBM nerd, there may be no way out. Frank is the author of
Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler (with Matt Weiland, 1997), from
which this selection is taken. His most recent book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever
Happened to the Party of the People? was published in 2016.
The public be damned! I work for my stockholders.
— WILLIAM H. VANDERBILT, 1879
Break the rules. Stand apart. Keep your head. Go with your heart.
— TV commercial for Vanderbilt perfume, 1994
Capitalism is changing, obviously and drastically. From the moneyed pages of the Wall
Street Journal to TV commercials for airlines and photocopiers we hear every day about
the new order’s globe-spanning, cyber-accumulating ways. But our notion about what’s
wrong with American life and how the figures responsible are to be confronted haven’t
changed much in thirty years. Call it, for convenience, the “countercultural idea.” It holds
that the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been
described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism,
technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian.30 We all know what it is and what it does. It
transforms humanity into “organization man,” into “the man in the gray flannel suit.” It is
“Moloch31 whose mind is pure machinery,” the “incomprehensible prison” that consumes
“brains and imagination.” It is artifice, starched shirts, tailfins, carefully mowed lawns, and
always, always, the consciousness of impending nuclear destruction. It is a stiff, militaristic
order that seeks to suppress instinct, to forbid sex and pleasure, to deny basic human
impulses and individuality, to enforce through a rigid uniformity a meaningless plastic
As this half of the countercultural idea originated during the 1950s, it is appropriate
that the evils of conformity are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s
suburban correctness. You know, that land of sedate music, sexual repression, deference to
authority, Red Scares, and smiling white people standing politely in line to go to church.
Constantly appearing as a symbol of arch-backwardness in advertising and movies, it is an
image we find easy to evoke.
The ways in which this system are to be resisted are equally well understood and
agreed-upon. The Establishment demands homogeneity; we revolt by embracing diverse,
individual lifestyles. It demands self-denial and rigid adherence to convention; we revolt
through immediate gratification, instinct uninhibited, and liberation of the libido and the
appetites. Few have put it more bluntly than Jerry Rubin did in 1970: “Amerika says: Don’t!
The yippies say: Do It!” The countercultural idea is hostile to any law and every
establishment. “Whenever we see a rule, we must break it,” Rubin continued. “Only by
breaking rules do we discover who we are.” Above all rebellion consists of a sort of
Nietzschean antinomianism,32 an automatic questioning of rules, a rejection of whatever
social prescriptions we’ve happened to inherit. Just Do It is the whole of the law.
The patron saints of the countercultural idea are, of course, the Beats, whose frenzied
style and merry alienation still maintain a powerful grip on the American imagination. Even
forty years after the publication of On the Road, the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and
Burroughs remain the sine qua non of dissidence, the model for aspiring poets, rock stars,
or indeed anyone who feels vaguely artistic or alienated. That frenzied sensibility of pure
experience, life on the edge, immediate gratification, and total freedom from moral restraint,
which the Beats first propounded back in those heady days when suddenly everyone could
have their own TV and powerful V-8, has stuck with us through all the intervening years
and become something of a permanent American style. Go to any poetry reading and you
can see a string of junior Kerouacs go through the routine, upsetting cultural hierarchies by
pushing themselves to the limit, straining for that gorgeous moment of original vice when
Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in 1955 and the patriarchs of our fantasies recoiled in
shock. The Gap may have since claimed Ginsberg and USA Today may run feature stories
about the brilliance of the beloved Kerouac, but the rebel race continues today regardless,
with ever-heightening shit-references calculated to scare Jesse Helms, talk about sex and
smack that is supposed to bring the electricity of real life, and ever-more determined
defiance of the repressive rules and mores of the American 1950s — rules and mores that
by now we know only from movies.
But one hardly has to go to a poetry reading to see the countercultural idea acted out.
Its frenzied ecstasies have long since become an official aesthetic of consumer society, a
monotheme of mass as well as adversarial culture. Turn on the TV and there it is instantly:
the unending drama of consumer unbound and in search of an ever-heightened good time,
the inescapable rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, dreadlocks and ponytails bounding into Taco Bells,
a drunken, swinging-camera epiphany of tennis shoes, outlaw soda pops, and mind-
bending dandruff shampoos. Corporate America, it turns out, no longer speaks in the voice
of oppressive order that it did when Ginsberg moaned in 1956 that Time magazine was
always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious.
Everybody’s serious but me.
Nobody wants you to think they’re serious today, least of all Time Warner. On the contrary:
the Culture Trust is now our leader in the Ginsbergian search for kicks upon kicks.
Corporate America is not an oppressor but a sponsor of fun, provider of lifestyle
accoutrements, facilitator of carnival, our slang-speaking partner in the quest for that evermore apocalyptic orgasm. The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its
hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural
regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new; its taste for self-fulfillment and its
intolerance for the confines of tradition now permitting vast latitude in consuming practices
and lifestyle experimentation.
Consumerism is no longer about “conformity” but about “difference.” Advertising
teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but
in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of
the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism. We consume not to fit in, but
to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock ’n’ roll rebels, each one of us as rulebreaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes of the ’60s, who now pitch cars, shoes, and
beer. This imperative of endless difference is today the genius at the heart of American
capitalism, an eternal fleeing from “sameness” that satiates our thirst for the New with such
achievements of civilization as the infinite brands of identical cola, the myriad colors and
irrepressible variety of the cigarette rack at 7-Eleven.
As existential rebellion has become a more or less official style of Information Age
capitalism, so has the countercultural notion of a static, repressive Establishment grown
hopelessly obsolete. However the basic impulses of the countercultural idea may have
disturbed a nation lost in Cold War darkness, they are today in fundamental agreement with
the basic tenets of Information Age business theory. . . .
Contemporary corporate fantasy imagines a world of ceaseless, turbulent change, of
centers that ecstatically fail to hold, of joyous extinction for the craven gray-flannel
creature of the past. Businessmen today decorate the walls of their offices not with portraits
of President Eisenhower and emblems of suburban order, but with images of extreme
athletic daring, with sayings about “diversity” and “empowerment” and “thinking outside
the box.” They theorize their world not in the bar car of the commuter train, but in weepy
corporate retreats at which they beat their tom-toms and envision themselves as part of the
great avant-garde tradition of edge-livers, risk-takers, and ass-kickers. Their world is a
place not of sublimation and conformity, but of “leadership” and bold talk about defying
the herd. And there is nothing this new enlightened species of businessman despises more
than “rules” and “reason.” The prominent culture-warriors of the right may believe that the
counterculture was capitalism’s undoing, but the antinomian businessmen know better.
“One of the t-shirt slogans of the sixties read, ‘Question authority,’” the authors of
Reengineering the Corporation write. “Process owners might buy their reengineering team
members the nineties version: ‘Question assumptions.’”
The new businessman quite naturally gravitates to the slogans and sensibility of the
rebel sixties to express his understanding of the new Information World. He is led in what
one magazine calls “the business revolution” by the office-park subversives it hails as
“business activists,” “change agents,” and “corporate radicals.” . . . In television
commercials, through which the new American businessman presents his visions and selfunderstanding to the public, perpetual revolution and the gospel of rule-breaking are the
orthodoxy of the day. You only need to watch for a few minutes before you see one of these
slogans and understand the grip of antinomianism over the corporate mind:
Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules — Burger King
If You Don’t Like the Rules, Change Them — WXRT-FM
The Rules Have Changed — Dodge
The Art of Changing — Swatch
There’s no one way to do it. — Levi’s
This is different. Different is good. — Arby’s
Just Different From the Rest — Special Export beer
The Line Has Been Crossed: The Revolutionary New Supra — Toyota
Resist the Usual — the slogan of both Clash Clear Malt and Young & Rubicam
Innovate Don’t Imitate — Hugo Boss
Chart Your Own Course — Navigator Cologne
It separates you from the crowd — Vision Cologne
In most, the commercial message is driven home with the vanguard iconography of the
rebel: screaming guitars, whirling cameras, and startled old timers who, we predict, will
become an increasingly indispensable prop as consumers require ever-greater assurances
that, Yes! You are a rebel! Just look at how offended they are! . . .
The structure and thinking of American business have changed enormously in the years
since our popular conceptions of its problems and abuses were formulated. In the meantime
the mad frothings and jolly apolitical revolt of Beat, despite their vast popularity and
insurgent air, have become powerless against a new regime that, one suspects, few of Beat’s
present-day admirers and practitioners feel any need to study or understand. Today that
beautiful countercultural idea, endorsed now by everyone from the surviving Beats to
shampoo manufacturers, is more the official doctrine of corporate America than it is a
program of resistance. What we understand as “dissent” does not subvert, does not
challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of Western business. What David Rieff
wrote of the revolutionary pretensions of multiculturalism is equally true of the
countercultural idea: “The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in
business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches
of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way
they view the world.” What’s happened is not co-optation or appropriation, but a simple
and direct confluence of interest.
READING THE TEXT
1. In your own words, define what Frank means by “countercultural idea” (para.1) and its
2. How does Frank explain the relationship between the countercultural idea and
3. How were the Beats early progenitors of today’s countercultural ideas, according to
4. In what ways does Frank believe that modern business has co-opted the countercultural
5. How do you characterize Frank’s tone in this selection? Does his tone enhance or
detract from the forcefulness of his argument?
READING THE SIGNS
1. Analyze some current advertising in a magazine, on the Internet, or on television,
determining whether the advertisements employ the countercultural idea as a marketing
ploy. Use your observations as the basis for an essay in which you assess whether the
countercultural idea and the associated “iconography of the rebel” (para. 9) still prevail
in advertising, as Frank suggests.
2. In class, brainstorm a list of today’s cultural rebels, either marketing characters or real
people such as actors or musicians, and discuss why these rebels are considered
attractive to their intended audience. Use the class discussion as a springboard for your
own essay in which you analyze how the status of cultural rebels is a sign of the mood
of modern American culture.
3. Write an essay in which you agree, disagree, or modify Frank’s contention that
marketing no longer promotes conformity but, rather, promotes “never-ending selffulfillment” and “constantly updated individualism” (para. 6).
4. Visit a youth-oriented store such as Urban Outfitters, and analyze its advertising,
product displays, exterior design, and interior decor. Write an essay in which you gauge
the extent to which the store uses the iconography of the rebel as a marketing strategy.
5. Study a current magazine focused on business or on modern technology, such as
Bloomberg Businessweek, Business 2.0, or Wired. To what extent does the magazine
exemplify Frank’s claim that modern business eschews conformity and embraces
rebellion and rule breaking? Alternatively, you might analyze some corporate Web sites,
preferably several from companies in the same industry. Keep in mind that different
industries may have very different corporate cultures; the values and ideals that
dominate high tech, for instance, may differ dramatically from those in finance,
entertainment, or social services.
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