Are These Ads Actually Cool?!?

A copywriter confronts Brooklyn, David Fincher’s Gap ads, and contemporary hipster-dom

1.

I moved to Brooklyn at the end of May, and by August I found myself, as I imagine many Brooklyn-ites in their 20s do at some point, on a rooftop in Bushwick for the screening of an old film, projector and all. The building was to be torn down the following day, but for some time, it had been used as a DIY art space. I kept thinking I’d eavesdrop on conversations wherein a group of attendees, $2 PBRs in hand, would bemoan its destruction as yet another signifier of gentrification.

Surprisingly, the film wasn’t stuffy or pretentious at all. It was a 1945 film noir called Detour, birthed by what was then deemed Hollywood’s “poverty row” in only six days of shooting. The pervasive mood of unavoidable doom in the picture was undercut by its obvious low-budget and dated lines like, “I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world, a woman.”

Because of this dissonance, there was a feeling among the audience that we liked the movie itself and also in spite of itself. Later, when the party moved downstairs into a high-ceilinged warehouse of a first floor, and the host, setting up a projector (digital, this time) for what would be a far more stuffy and pretentious piece of video art, called out for everyone to light up their cigs, I looked at my friend, bewildered. “I’m not cool enough to be here,” I said.

But then I looked around. “Do you think everyone thinks they’re not cool enough to be here? Does anyone truly think this is their scene?”

Scanning the room, he shook his head. “No one here thinks they’re cool.”

2.

Notions of American cool, as defined by a former professor of mine, Joel Dinerstein, in his book American Cool, began with the black saxophonist Lester Young, whose cool jazz playing (as opposed to “hot” big band stuff) and calm demeanor in the face of oppressive social forces (i.e. racism) brought the term into our lexicon. Dinerstein defines cool figures throughout American history as exuding “the aura of something new and uncontainable”; they are completely self-possessed and have an original aesthetic; they “embody new strategies of individuality for the cultural environment”; they are “successful rebels” and have a “charismatic edge and a dark side.”

The definition is useful in examining the idea my friend and I shared that night that none of the mostly white, young, educated, middle-to-upper class people in attendance believed they were cool. For lack of a better term, they (myself included) are lost souls of the (debatably) waning hipster demographic: one that, abetted by the democratizing effect of the internet and the absence of a draft, faces far less staggering oppressive forces. At the same time, this hipster generation has also rightly stepped aside to make room for what were formerly deemed “other voices” who have historically been viewed as more authentic and original.

It follows that, feeling devoid of any well from which to draw out something truly authentic or original of their own, hipsters have historically attempted to acquire cool through their purchases (see: Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of real capital converting into “cultural capital” or Thomas Frank’s definition of the “rebel consumer”). In lieu of Elvis Presly-types getting big off the backs of minority artists, there are now hordes of rich white kids buying Kanye’s clothes.

Hipsters also, as cultural critic Mark Grief has noted (here and here), jockey to be “the inventors or first adopters of novelties” with “pride com[ing] from knowing and deciding what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world.” For Grief, “this in-group competition, more than anything else, is why the term hipster is primarily a pejorative.” That is, no one wants to admit their efforts for cool are indeed effortful or evince their self-awareness of the privilege that gives them time, money, etc. to compete in the first place.  The pervasive feeling of not being cool we experienced in Bushwick stems, then, from guilt and shame—we don’t deserve to be cool.

Thus, the only way to be cool is to refuse the mantle itself, which just so happens to be a principal ethic of Twee, a cultural signifier that came into vogue in 2014. Though Twee’s definition is somewhat amorphous (see Marc Spitz’s book on the subject), for the sake of this essay, it’s helpful to think of it as just another evolution of the hipster, or evolved attributes of the hipster: more sincere, less ironic; moral rather than narcissistic; kind instead of snarky.[1]

It makes sense that the hipster would move in this direction: after all, irony can only go so far before it gets exhausting. At some point, the discourse around hipster-ism just starts to feel like an infinity mirror, and people get worn out endlessly debating their own inadequacies.

And yet, Twee or otherwise, no one believes that today’s hipster isn’t trying to be cool, no matter their efforts to refuse the ethos. So what then? Is cool possible for the hipster? Are we destined to attend parties where “no one here believes they’re cool” for eternity? What does contemporary hipster cool look like?

3.

Here’s my take: David Fincher’s 2014 Dress Normal ads 1). Incarnate contemporary hipster cool and 2). In doing so, suggest a new mode of being for the modern hipster, which boils down to: revere yourself, not your purchases.

In the best of the bunch—a black-and-white ad titled “Drive”—four young beautiful people are in a car. A woman drives, a man is beside her, and two women are in the backseat. One of those women is soaking wet, and begins a wordless struggle to take off her wet jeans. A jazz composition—L’Amour La Mort by Martial Solal—sets a playful, curious mood. We get a shot of the other backseat passenger turning away, a shot of the driver checking the rearview mirror, and a shot of the man moving ever-so slightly as the wet girl’s bare foot plops over the top of his seat. Then she’s finally done and the tag appears—the uniform of rebellion and conformity[2]—after which we cut back to the girl in the backseat, her knees pressed up against her chest, a slight smile on her face as she looks out the window. The music has cooled down to the sounds, mostly, of one crooning saxophone, and Gap’s logo comes up with the name of the campaign, Dress Normal, underneath it.

Like most cool figures, “Drive” draws from several historically cool tropes and combines them into something uniquely its own. There are the noir elements: everything from its name, to the plot (a girl enters a car; but why is she all wet? It’s not even raining outside) to it being filmed in black and white. Then there’s the cool jazz composition from Solal, who, coincidentally, wrote the music for Godard’s Breathless, a French film which itself was a take on American jazz and noir.[3] One might even say that the title, the clothes, and the look of the people in the car resembles the road-loving generation of beat poets. And all of this combines with the contained, nonchalant—yet edgy—seductiveness of the actors—perennial hallmarks of the cool figure, from Dean to Brando.

But moreover, the ads themselves are “successful rebels”: they are beautiful ads that fail at what they’re designed to do. Over at Jezebel, Isha Asran supports this notion with purported sales numbers, arguing that Gap missed the irony of the emerging “normcore” trend being consumed by the now recognizable hipster type:

See, people don’t want to actually be normal….They just want to lay claim to the “normal” aesthetic, a feature and visual indicator of hyper trendiness and most social status. While a purported authenticity of the clothing items themselves is key for success, Gap’s sincerity is its downfall. There is nothing sincere about normcore.

Ashran, here, is partly right. I agree that people “don’t want to actually be normal,” but I disagree with her implication that Gap doesn’t agree with this as well. The entire Dress Normal campaign is based on a narrative irony that communicates the message that  if you buy Gap’s normal clothes, you’ll actually be anything but.

Yet the ads’ failure to literally sell those clothes suggests that perhaps Fincher’s ads might’ve ended up transcending their inherent narrative irony, such that they inadvertently persuaded hipsters that they didn’t need to buy their clothes—normcore or otherwise—at all. In a way, then, Gap’s sincerity is its downfall: it has gotten through to hipsters with a vision akin to Spitz’s conception of Twee characters—don’t buy Gap; instead, bravely assert your tender self.  What’s remarkable about Fincher’s ads, though, is that this message is conveyed not with anti-cool Twee aesthetic, but with a cool vision of their own. There is nothing ostentatious or overly cutesy about Gap’s sincerity (no one here really needs to be “brave”), and this is in no small part due to the fact that Gap is a corporation and their medium is, of course, an advertisement.

So what would have typically disqualified these short films (yes, I’m calling them that now) from being cool has only bolstered their coolness. They’ve been made into an insurgent for ads in and of themselves, taking down decades’ worth of corporations telling you that in order to be cool you need to buy this thing (see: cigarettes, motorcycles, cars, leather jackets, guitars—all historically cool totems) by coming up with an ad that refuses to do so. Rather than the purchase making you cool, you will make the purchase cool.  This wasn’t purposeful on Gap’s part, though, in the end, their failure as ads parallels the failure of hipsters; we’re at the infinity mirror again, an effective canceling out: an ad that in trying so hard not to sell clothes (in order to sell clothes) actually doesn’t sell clothes; likewise, a hipster who tries so hard not to be cool (to be cool) can actually not be cool.

The key distinction with the Gap ads is that their failure might lend hope—a new strategy of individuation, as Dinerstein might say—to the hipster they’re trying to reach. In Fincher’s ads, the contemporary hipster can look, without shame, in the mirror, and see everything—the clothes, the race, the age, the class, the person— held there, and perhaps begin to embrace it, contradictions and all.

[1] To be clear: At the end of the day, the guy you’d call Twee (if you ever did so) would also be called a hipster, and vice versa.

[2] This is ripped right from Grief’s description of the hipster, who he says “aligns himself with rebel subculture and with the dominant class.”

[3] Think: Belmondo’s habit of pressing his thumb around his lips—an homage to the undoubtedly cool Humphrey Bogart.

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