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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Great Post! I recently just watched Douglas Rushkoff's The Merchants of Cool, and was amazed at the lengths that companies will go to sell cool. I wonder what can we start doing today to distance ourselves from these practices?


Wow. This article captures the mentality of the new revolution. Very well done. Kudos, Adbusters. You've inspired me once again to keep on pushing media and to stick it to the social norms. Fuck you, corporations. You can't bank on THIS kind of cool.

Taylor Lancaster

Like a breath of fresh air. So much that I have an example.

I happen to wear attire that may not fit into the mainstream comercialized gustapo. Bright colors mostly. One day I was drinking coffee, and a man, in what seemed to be an armani suit, came walking up to me in a disapproving look. 'Why are you wearing that?' In which my response was 'Do your clothes inspire you?' He walked away mystified.

My challenge to the mainstream is to stand up to those that oppose. As Einstein once said, great minds often fierce great opposition.

Iron Aiden Hunkin

Good article Kalle. Advertisers and their corporate bosses have been fighting for decades to claim every last inch of our mind's landscape, much like buying up prime real estate.
Except instead of building houses, they're planting seeds akin to evil in our minds: envy of celebrities, pride for driving a Hummer because nothing says higher status like driving something so large and ugly, never ending greed and gluttony, loathing of ourselves because we aren't thin enough, strong enough, rich enough, sexy enough, cool enough. I could go on, but I'm sure that anyone with half a mind can take this ball and run with it.
It's time for independent thought to return, and be cool again. That anyone mindlessly moving their way through life like so many do be ignored, because if no one compliments them on a $1000 bag which took 3 cents of material and 4 Chinese kids to make, and that they be ridiculed for falling prey to an ad campaign You actually thought the iPod with video would make you happier? Poor fool. Prehaps they may think again, maybe even for themselves this time around.
Or if worse comes to worse and people who've been sucked in by the hype of consumerism are lost cause, we can only hope to pass on independent thought and put in perspective what really matters in life to all of our future children. I guess only time will tell.


Apathy. The most practiced virtue of our youth. Not only is apathy cool, our whole definition of cool is distorted. Now we're 12 feet under.


I've come to despise the very word cool or, more often, kewl!. It seems to have become shorthand for anything anyone under 27 likes and recently discovered, even if it happened before they were born. The concept of cool has become so mainstream now that everyone thinks they're cool, even if they're not. Mike Huckabee is cool, and so is Chuck Norris. I bet even Bush thinks he's cool. Probably everyone reading this website thinks they're cool. Probably I think I am, too. And, of course, Obama is cool, and you better not suggest otherwise if you know what's good for you. I'd be happy to ban the word and the concept if I could, then we could move forward and be really human, and come out from under the thrall of living up to anyone's hype, and buying the trademarked products to go with it.


Don't people read Adbusters to be cool, defiant, and associated with a niche of hippie neoluddites finishing eachothers sentences? I like it, but it's all the same.


Taylor I agree. The article was nice but when you think of cool in terms of how uncapitalist or
unconformist it is you defeat the point of being either. Just life your life well. Live your life humanely and don't worry about the rest.


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