The Reconquest of Cool

The Reconquest of Cool

Forty years after corporations hijacked "cool," we need to start generating authentic cool from the bottom up again.

Joe Szabo Smoking Girl.jpg
Photo: Joe Szabo

From its roots in Africa through to the youth cultures of the present day, cool has always been an attitude of resistance to subjugation, an expression of rebellion and a posture of defiance.

During the ’60s, in the midst of one of the biggest cultural revolutions of our time, corporations discovered that cool could be incredibly profitable. While young people spontaneously took to the streets and organized festivals and anti-war protests, corporations started raiding their counterculture for eye-catching signifiers and stylistic expressions to incorporate into their marketing campaigns.

Thus began a two-step dance of authentic cool and fake, commercialized cool. As Thomas Frank explains in his 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool, bit by bit cool “became central to the way capitalism understood itself and explained itself to the public.” In one of the most stunning cultural coups d’état ever, ad agency gurus figured out “how to construct cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent.”

Forty years after the corporate takeover of cool, we find ourselves again in an era of extraordinary cultural and political upheaval. Global warming has us running scared, an epidemic of mood disorders is eroding our confidence, and as the War on Terror morphs into an open-ended World War IV, we are feeling more insecure than ever.

Kaapo Kamu
Photo: Kaapo Kamu

Suddenly, people are waking up in droves from the dreamland of corporate cool. We’re realizing that ever since we were little babies crawling around the TV sets in our living rooms, we’ve been lied to, propagandized, and told incessantly, day after day, that we can find happiness through consumption. That’s why, like rats in a Skinner box, we’ve kept on pressing that BUY button – millions of us marching in lockstep, all dreaming the same consumerist dream.

Now the fog is lifting. We’re finally beginning to understand where this bogus cool has been leading us: not to happiness and prosperity as promised in the ads, but to cynicism, ecocide and a brutal, dog-eat-dog future.

This is the magic moment in which capitalist cool can stumble and authentic cool can start bubbling back up again. And after decades of wandering around the wilderness, we on the Left are finally realizing what that magic moment is all about. Clive Hamilton – author of Growth Fetish and Affluenza – nails it in his 2006 article, “What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy,” when he writes, “The defining problem of modern industrial society is not injustice but alienation... the central task of progressive politics today is to achieve not equality, but liberation.”

Forget about treating the symptoms. Forget about the hedgemaze of identity politics. Break away from the glorious equality and social justice battles of the past. Instead, liberate yourself from the capitalist mindfuck. Learn to live without dead time. Start generating authentic cool from the bottom up again. The rest will follow.

158 comments on the article “The Reconquest of Cool”

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2 pictures of cigarette smoking kids is not cool. Leather jackets doesn't make you cool. Wearing Emporio Armani sunglasses and scratching on photography doesnt make you cool either. Actually its kind of lame.

I think putting it out there that its not new anymore because its been exploited to death, but to say that these kids who think they are cool is an artificial coolness is bogus. Cool is artifice. Individuality is authentic. Individuality is the person who doesnt feel the need to pierce their noses or start tagging because everyone else is doing it. Searching for someones authenticity and individuality is alot more difficult and real.

I like green

I am a very outgoing person well, at least I try and I completely agree with this article. To me, the word cool desribes anything that I think is interesting so in other words, I use it for things that are anything but cool haha If I see someone wearing an outragously oversized foam cowboy hat, I would go to the awesome person wearing the hat and tell them truthfully that it's cool. I wear an outragous hat to school every day : My cool is reserved for colourful things and magic tricks and etc.


The trouble is, almost by definition, it isn't cool to get too serious about what is and isn't cool. But I guess that's its the new cool is uncool.

texas momma

You know what's 'cool'? Being a teacher. Being a dork. Making faces in the mirror with my 6-year-old. Oh, wait a minute, that's not cool it's just good. I wanted to be cool so bad and did all of the stupid things to be cool. Don't most of us? Finally, I got out of my twenties and had babies and really saw/felt what was important. For years, I thought being cool was to be apathetic but the thing is, I never was. I do care about things and people and what in the world is so wrong with that! Okay, I've inundated ya'll with plenty of bad grammar and runons. Take care,
texas momma.


The people of that world today feel they have to buy in to be excepted by the public. I agree with this article. Every word of it. we need to free these people of there bonds. Open there eyes and show that they don't need money to be apart of society but to just be themselves.


We have to tread carefully, because every revolution can be dissected and sold back to us, and in all the colors that are in this season. Just look how new clothes are made now, they're printed to look old and worn, you see racks and racks full of jeans with the same rip already worn in for you. Individuality with a price tag and a designer name. We need to start fighting the corporate machine itself, instead of fighting its current face, the fake knock off version of the last rebellion that was striving for authenticity. What we need is to start acting and stop whining, buy used clothes, buy handmade clothes, hell, start making clothes. Many of my friends knit, some of us paint our own logos and designs, some make their own jewelry out of recycled materials too!. Stop seeing big acts at arenas and support the local music scene. Don't just stop paying for music by stealing it online, start buying music from local musicians. People who actually need the money. Make yourself and you'll never have to chase it. And being yourself is what being cool is supposed to be about, right?


I agree with you Patricioi!

Has the search for authentic coolness helped make changes in our society? No! Rebelling against the mainstream seems to me to have helped to divert youth into thinking that they are actually doing something. It has also been a catalyst for the right to tighten up their reins. I think the discussion and contemplation of cool and uncool needs to be dropped. The corporations and others of so-called authority can have their cool and shove it. We need to get back to basics here, to real human moments of connecting to one other. Fuck cool, it never worked. It only served to further alienate people from one another by utilizing social markers to draw lines between those who are in the know and those who aren't. Once those lines are drawn there is very little, if at, room for any kind of communication and of course positive social change. That's what all of you want right? If not, then fine, continue your mindless search for that authentic cool while humanity and the earth fall a part.


I think we should just fully extinguish this word. But in a highly superficial society, we all know that will never happen. There always has to be an ideal of what people should and should not be, always. Especially with the brainwashing effects of tabloid magazines and entertainment television, cool will prevail. Not that we want it to. What can we really do about it? Host a revolution? I wish. People would rather update their profiles on myspace and make it look cool and read fashion magazines and tabloids rather than attempt to reinvent change. I'm in to do it, but what about everyone else?


cool is about status. all animals strive for status. because when you have visible status, you can avoid fighting to figure out the pecking order.

fighting is very physically exhausint and everyone would rather avoid it, even if we are quite aggressive animals ourselves.

so it's all about STATUS. which is perfectly normal. just there are billions of us doing it now, and with the help of fossil fools.


Advertisements thrive off our need to feel valued yet tell us that we are never enough. I used to be able to define good as only the opposite of bad, only rebelling by doing the opposite of which I despised which isn't very helpful. now I see that it can be its own self entirely! thank you adbusters. I just found this magazine.

on cool, cool is just a word for good things and the name/superficial values or appearance of these good things will always be jacked with as soon as money grubby media learn what it is. Just change the name, you'll still talk about the same good thing, and it won't be warped... You can come up with a suitable name because your in touch with these good things, the perverters aren't. This is why genres change? Pop music is like a double helix, see...


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