Throughout the 1950's and early 1960's, a growing counterculture assembled around a critique of the stifling, patronizing consumer culture of their day.
The counterculture objected to advertising and what they saw as its "reorganization of culture around the imperative of consuming homogenized, mass-produced goods." (Frank, Conquest of Cool, 9) Following on the impulse of the Beats, the counterculture immersed itself in nature, simplicity, and drugs, rejecting the norms of society in a search for authentic experience. In Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank attacks the traditional narrative of the conflict between the counterculture and the commercial world. According to Frank, "the standard story of the counterculture begins with an account of the social order against which it rebelled, a social order that was known to just about everyone by 1960 as the 'mass society.'" (9) The counterculture defined itself against the aspects of society that advertising represented.
A study of the culture of advertising in the 1950s and early 1960s demonstrates the root of the counterculture's objection to mass culture. In this period, "Madison Avenue was "Ulcer Gulch," the preserve of the famous "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"; it was the archetypal destination for look-alike commuters from Westchester; it was slow-moving, WASPy, and serious; it was populated by other-directed organization men. It was a shrine of 'Theory X' conformity, the seat of all that was wrong with American culture. Admen were hopeless yes-men, dedicated to affirming their clients' every whim." (35)
Throughout the 1950's and early 1960's a strictly scientific approach dominated advertising theory, involving "a belief in the transcendent value of organization and in the power of 'science' to solve any problems." (10) Advertisers approached their public audience through utter saturation of the consumer's consciousness with campaigns that were "trite, repetitive, and literally unbelievable," convincing the consumer that it was the product to buy. In the 1950s, "the 'Theory X' values of science, efficiency, and management were at their zenith, and those of creativity and carnival noticeably in eclipse. . . Their idealized vision of consuming life had little to do with the actual experience of American consumers." (39)
A new revolutionary generation of advertisers reacted against this bland, scientific approach to advertising. "In the gilded tableaux of so much of 1950s advertising, the world of consumer goods was a place of divine detachment, a vision of perfection through products. For [advertising executive Henry] Gossage, though, such ads were 'shielded from real life,' making no effort to 'engage their readers on a direct basis or attempt to involve them.'" (77)
In the course of the 1960s this attitude yielded to a more sophisticated, artistic approach taken by advertisers toward their audience.
"The slow-moving and hierarchical organizations of Madison Avenue would yield to a more flexible new capitalism that imagined consuming not in terms of conformity and orderly progress but in those of the glorious chaos of hip." (39) "It's 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 … a consumerism markedly different from its 1950s permutation, a hip consumerism driven by disgust with mass society itself." (Frank, 28) Scientific advertising yielded to the creativity and individuality of the counterculture.
Frank, Thomas. Conquest of Cool. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).