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THOMAS FRANK
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 consumerism.
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 archbackwardness 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 ever-more 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 rule-breaking 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 grayflannel 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 self-understanding 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 evergreater 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 (Answer this questions)
A).1.In your own words, define what Frank means by “countercultural idea”
(para.1) and its commodification.
2.How does Frank explain the relationship between the countercultural idea and
conformity?
3.How were the Beats early progenitors of today’s countercultural ideas, according
to Frank?
4.In what ways does Frank believe that modern business has co-opted the
countercultural idea?
5.How do you characterize Frank’s tone in this selection? Does his tone enhance or
detract from the forcefulness of his argument?
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).
CREATING CONSUMERS STEVE CRAIG
Men’s Men and Women’s Women
Men and women both drink beer, but you wouldn’t guess that from the television
ads that pitch beer as a guy beverage and associate beer drinking with such guy
things as fishing trips, bars, and babes. Conversely, both men and women can find
themselves a few pounds overweight, but you wouldn’t know that from the ads,
which almost always feature women, as they are intended to appeal to women
dieters. In this selection, Steve Craig provides a step-by-step analysis of four TV
commercials, showing how advertisers carefully craft their ads to appeal,
respectively, to male and female consumers. A professor in the department of
radio, television, and film at the University of North Texas, Craig has written
widely on television, radio history, and gender and media.
Gender and the Economics of Television Advertising
The economic structure of the television industry has a direct effect on the
placement and content of all television programs and commercials. Large
advertisers and their agencies have evolved the pseudo-scientific method of time
purchasing based on demographics, with the age and sex of the consumer generally
considered to be the most important predictors of purchasing behavior. Computers
make it easy to match market research on product buying patterns with audience
research on television viewing habits. Experience, research, and intuition thus yield
a demographic (and even psychographic) profile of the “target audience.”
Advertisers can then concentrate their budgets on those programs which the target
audience is most likely to view. The most economical advertising buys are those in
which the target audience is most concentrated (thus, the less “waste” audience the
advertiser must purchase) (Barnouw, 1978; Gitlin, 1983; Jhally, 1987).
Good examples of this demographic targeting can be seen by contrasting the ads
seen on daytime television, aimed at women at home, with those on weekend
sports telecasts. Ads for disposable diapers are virtually never seen during a
football game any more than commercials for beer are seen during soap operas.
True, advertisers of some products simply wish to have their commercials seen by
the largest number of consumers at the lowest cost without regard to age, sex, or
other demographic descriptors, but most consider this approach far too inefficient
for the majority of products.
A general rule of thumb in television advertising, then, is that daytime is the best
time to reach the woman who works at home. Especially important to advertisers
among this group is the young mother with children. Older women, who also make
up a significant proportion of the daytime audience, are generally considered less
important by many advertisers in the belief that they spend far less money on
consumer goods than young mothers.
Prime time (the evening hours) is considered a good time to reach women who
work away from home, but since large numbers of men are also in the audience, it
can also be a good time to advertise products with wider target audiences.
Weekend sports periods (and, in season, “Monday Night Football”) are the only
time of the week when men outnumber women in the television audience, and
therefore, become the optimum time for advertising products and services aimed at
men.
Gendered Television, Gendered Commercials
In his book Television Culture (1987, Chs. 10, 11), John Fiske discusses “gendered
television,” explaining that the television industry successfully designs some
programs for men and others for women. Clearly, program producers and
schedulers must consider the target audience needs of their clients (the advertisers)
in creating a television program lineup. The gendering of programming allows the
industry to provide the proper audience for advertisers by constructing shows
pleasurable for the target audience to watch, and one aspect of this construction is
in the gender portrayals of characters.
Fiske provides the following example:
Women’s view of masculinity, as evidenced in soap operas, differs markedly from
that produced for the masculine audience. The “good” male in the daytime soaps is
caring, nurturing, and verbal. He is prone to making comments like “I don’t care
about material wealth or professional success, all I care about is us and our
relationship.” He will talk about feelings and people and rarely express his
masculinity in direct action. Of course, he is still decisive, he still has masculine
power, but that power is given a “feminine” inflection. . . . The “macho”
characteristics of goal centeredness, assertiveness, and the morality of the strongest
that identify the hero in masculine television, tend here to be characteristics of the
villain. (p. 186)
But if the programming manipulates gender portrayals to please the audience, then
surely so must the commercials that are the programs’ reason for being. My
previous research (Craig, 1990) supports the argument that advertisers also
structure the gender images in their commercials to match the expectations and
fantasies of their intended audience. Thus, commercials portraying adult women
with children were nearly four times more likely to appear during daytime soap
operas than during weekend sports (p. 50). Daytime advertisers exploit the image
of women as mothers to sell products to mothers. Likewise, during the weekend
sports broadcasts, only 18 percent of the primary male characters were shown at
home, while during the daytime ads, 40 percent of them were (p. 42). For the
woman at home, men are far more likely to be portrayed as being around the house
than they are in commercials aimed at men on weekends.
Gendered commercials, like gendered programs, are designed to give pleasure to
the target audience, since it is the association of the product with a pleasurable
experience that forms the basis for much American television advertising. Yet
patriarchy conditions males and females to seek their pleasure differently.
Advertisers therefore portray different images to men and women in order to
exploit the different deep-seated motivations and anxieties connected to gender
identity. I would now like to turn to a close analysis of four television commercials
to illustrate …
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