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Losing Our Cool

John Fanning

During the second half of the twentieth century an important cultural revolution occurred in the traditionally staid world of business: the rebel, the outsider and the non-conformist began to replace the disciplined, submissive and obedient role models which had characterised the preceding decades.

The revolution, more or less unnoticed except in the more arcane corners of management literature, originated in America and is typified by Apple, now the most valuable business in the world. Apple’s famous “1984” TV commercial, which features an intrepid female warrior carrying a gigantic golden hammer followed by heavily armed goons smashing a giant screen which is brainwashing a huge audience of drudges is still the most graphic visual representation of the revolution. The commercial, now regarded as one of the most influential of all time, launched the Apple Macintosh, positioning it in the market as a tool for combating conformity and asserting originality.

By the end of the twentieth century more and more businesses sought to emulate Apple’s example and advertising agencies were deluged with requests from clients to provide more “edgy” creative work. However genuinely rebellious most businesses turned out to be there is little doubt that by the end of the century it seemed more desirable to be “cool” than wedded to the status quo.

It will be argued that Ireland’s national brand image, the impressions, associations, opinions and attitudes people around the world have about us, has always had a rebellious quotient and that this image has had an important beneficial impact on our economy. The rapid rise and even more rapid fall in our economic fortunes may have tarnished our “cool” image and some proposals for “regaining our cool” will be proposed here. However before considering this aspect of our image it may be useful to gain a deeper understanding of the concept of cool.

How Cool Became Hot

When the 1960s are mentioned today it is usually in connection with a debate about whether the permissive society associated with that decade went too far and in the process created a number of social problems for succeeding generations. It is a decade that is now characterised by a social revolution against the constraints and conventions of a previous age, memorably and precisely immortalised by Philip Larkin; “ Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / … Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”. But this narrow interpretation serves to obscure the most significant and lasting effect of that decade; the decline in the importance of status and the rise of “cool”.

Anthropologist Grant McCracken contends that for much of the twentieth century status was the main societal goal: everyone wanted to keep up with the Joneses, with the right school, the right club, the right suburb, the right business. The 1950s was the pinnacle of the status era later anatomised by books like William Wythe’s Organisation Man, films like The Stepford Wives and arguably most memorably of all in the Malvina Reynolds song Little Boxes:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same,
There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same

What is Cool?

The origins of cool are disputed. McCracken (2005) traces them back to mid-nineteenth century Paris, where bohemian values were adopted by the poètes maudits Verlaine, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, with Manet’s Absinthe Drinker providing a visual representation of the phenomenon of living outside the accepted norms of mainstream society. Pountain and Robins argue that cool has its roots in West Africa and came to the US via the slave trade. They quote art historian Robert Farris Thompson and his studies of African art: “he suggests that the concept of itutu, which he translates as ‘cool’ is a central concept in the animalistic religions of the Yoruba and Ibo civilisations of West Africa who embraced a religious philosophy that valued composure or cool – the criteria of coolness seems to unite and animate all other canons ‑ cool philosophy is a strong intellectual attitude, affecting incredibly diverse provinces of artistic happening yet leavened with humour and a sense of play”. Inevitably a sense of cool pervaded the jazz scene in twentieth century America, where it became a “body armour against the discrimination, patronisation and neglect” the mainly black musicians suffered at the hands of the white-dominated entertainment industry. Thus the idea of insouciance in the face of a superior force is a central characteristic of cool.

The Italian renaissance philosophy of sprezzatura is also widely discussed in writings on the subject. Described in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which was published in 1528 and went on to become one of the most widely translated books of the sixteenth century, it advocated an attitude of studied nonchalance for ambitious administrators of the time. The basic idea is to conceal any strain in our endeavours and make whatever one does appear to be without effort and almost without thought. The book was influential in England also and reputedly became a guide as to how the English gentleman should behave.

In the jazz world, a critical incubator of cool in the first part of the twentieth century, Charlie Parker represented the defiant outsider aspect of cool while Miles Davis epitomised the unflappable nonchalant role. Film has also been an important influence: in the 1950s and 60s stars like Brando, Dean and McQueen presented a rebellious defiance both on- and off-screen. This certainly chimed with the changing mood of that decade, but there were precedents, notably Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Rick in Casablanca, one of the coolest performances of all time. However Pountain and Robins (2000) make a strong case for Robert Mitchum as the ultimate in screen cool: “Mitchum always successfully conveyed the impression of a man whose ties to Western Civilisation were frayed to a single thread ‑ with his sleepy ‘don’t care’ eyes and a barely perceptible permanent smirk he exudes a combination of unflappability and slight aloofness that recall the original dictionary definition of ‘cool’”.

An obvious Irish role model for cool is our own poète maudit, Derek Mahon, who began his career in the 1960s. His work has been designated “sceptical and subversive” and he himself has been described as “a voice for the dispossessed and abandoned, the existential boulevardier desperately attempting to invent himself and a world on nothing but style”. How cool is that? He set out his stall in an early poem appropriately titled “No Rest for the Wicked”:

One more shiftless habit
It joins the buttered books
Stale loaves and wandering dishes
The shirts in the oven
And the volcanic ashtray
Forgive us, this is our way.

We were born to this ‑
Deckchairs, train corridors
Greyhound bus stations
Park benches, open boats
And wind-worried terraces
Of 19th century Paris.

He caps this all too accurate depiction of the bohemian lifestyle in a slightly later poem, “The Last of the Fire Kings”, where he confesses to wanting to be

… the man
Who drops at night
From a moving train
And strikes out over the fields
Where fireflies glow
Not knowing a word of the language.

Jumping from a moving train in a foreign country is surely the epitome of cool.

From this brief analysis it appears that there are two distinct strands of cool; one characterised by defiance in the face of convention, the other by a studied nonchalance and insouciance in the face of difficulty or danger. But regardless of which strand is involved there is general agreement that by the end of the twentieth century cool had well and truly come in from the cold; from quintessential outsider to the heart of the establishment it had once derided.

The Conquest of Cool

Cool and status have been locked in a battle for a hundred years. The outcome is

now inevitable, cool will take the day. (McCracken)

The bourgeois pecking order dominated American social life for most of the first two centuries of the country’s existence ‑ during that time the bourgeoisie was opposed by a competing value system that was generally called “bohemian” ‑ which valued experience, exploration and self-expression and opposed conformity ‑ at some point a tremendous cultural shift occurred ‑ bohemian values, that is cool ‑ usurped class as the dominant status system in America. (Heath & Potter)

It was the sudden American defection from square to hip that distinguished the culture of the 60s. (Frank)

While there will continue to be disputes over precise definitions; status is about standing while cool is about standing free, and even if the new “bohemian majority” wanted little more than permission to wear casual clothes to work on Fridays, it is obvious that a significant shift in attitudes and behaviour had occurred. At a minimum level this involved a much more casual attitude towards previous conventions in dress codes and sexual behaviour, a less deferential attitude towards authority of all kinds and a more tolerant attitude towards minorities.

But the most surprising aspect of the conquest of cool was the fact that it made no change to the political system. The revolutionary anti-capitalist values that fuelled the youth revolts of the 1960s were quickly absorbed by capitalism as businesses, always alert to changes in the “tone of the times”, positioned their companies and brands as “cool”.

In the 1970s it was feared that the new emphasis on freedom and bohemian values in general would lead to a decline in the capitalist system. Daniel Bell (1976) argued that the excesses of the 60s would be detrimental to the success of capitalism, whose success he attributed originally to a Protestant ethic based on an element of delayed gratification. He worried that the hedonistic spirit ushered in by the 60s would fatally undermine the spirit of capitalism. But he underestimated the capacity of the system to absorb change and in particular the fact that the business world was itself changing; the emergence of the knowledge economy meant that innovation and creativity were now the driving forces in business so that the bohemian values, once regarded as the antithesis of capitalism, became distinct assets. As Heath and Potter (2005) explain: “in some ways the restless individual free-spirited bohemian is more in tune with the true spirit of capitalism ‑ where fortunes are gained and lost in an afternoon, where flows of capital are unleashed across the world at the flick of a mouse, where commerce moves too quickly for anyone to put down roots and where everyone’s money is the same colour”.

The advertising business, its ear finely tuned to the zeitgeist, was quick to respond and this was nowhere more apparent than in the work of Bill Bernbach. He was the first adman to embrace the mass society critique and appeal directly to the powerful but unmentionable public fears of conformity, of manipulation, of fraud and of powerlessness, and to sell products by doing so. He invented what we might call anti-advertising: a style which harnessed public mistrust of consumerism – perhaps the most powerful cultural tendency of the age ‑ into a more powerful selling method exemplified by the ground-breaking Volkswagen advertising, which turned the predictability and conformity of American car advertising on its head. The classic “Think Small” ads perfectly caught the mood of the time and went on to become one of the most admired print campaign of the twentieth century. Thomas Frank (1997) summed up the advertising response to the conquest of cool: “Read as a whole the best advertising of the sixties constitute a kind of mass culture critique in its own right, a statement of alienation and disgust, of longing for authenticity and for selfhood that ranks with books like Growing up Absurd and movies like The Graduate.” Frank also commented on the peculiar paradox that lies at the heart of the cool revolution; the fact that advertising which takes an anti-consumerist stance turns out to be the most effective way of selling to the hippy generation. From now onwards all brands tried to be cool as cool became the guarantee of increased profits. Heath and Potter described the nature of the change: “cool … usurped class as the dominant status system but didn’t usurp the capitalist system ‑ the bohemian would find a new way to have their hash brownies and eat them too by creating a life that would allow them to become rebels with stock options”.

How Ireland Became Cool

Ireland’s national brand image, the sum of the impressions, opinions, attitudes and associations that come into people’s minds in other countries when our name is mentioned, has always contained a “cool” dimension. It is not of the studied nonchalance or unflappable variety, more a stance of defiance in the face of established convention combined with a perception of standing a little apart from the more frenzied antics of modern life.

The images that spring to mind when Ireland is mentioned are rugged beautiful scenery, friendly people, a somewhat tragic history and long struggle for independence. The latter two attributes are beginning to fade among a younger generation but we have long nurtured an otherworldly image if only to distinguish us from our neighbouring isle. In the words of GJ Watson (Irish Identity and the Literary Revival):

Archaic peasant but spirited Ireland versus modern, urban and materialistic England became an article of faith among the literary revivalists. The Irish countryman would never fall victim to the idolatrous materialism which afflicted the unfortunate Englishman because of his race memory, imagination even his very landscape is saturated with the idea of an alternative world.

Ireland’s detachment from the prevailing developed country worldview gave it a distinction and coolness which was typically captured by the Irish Tourist Board’s advertising agency in France. Publicis handled the account from the 1960s to the 1990s, a period during which visitors from France increased tenfold. Taking the poetic licence that advertising agencies are wont to take, they presented a romantic, idealised image of a nation secure in its own traditional way of life and populated by people with a philosophical turn of mind far from the madding crowd.

Mark Patrick Hederman (1977) put a more conceptual gloss on the difference in being Irish;

There are two other geographic idiosyncrasies which would seem to be more directly responsible for the “attitude” of the Irish; the first is proximity to the sea … an ominous reminder of our fragility and of powerful forces beyond our control … the second is the lighting … it makes us aware of the separateness of all things … it influences us towards a religious or metaphysical dimension.

As the twentieth century drew to a close our “religious and metaphysical” dimension was looking a little frayed but the power of Ireland’s nation brand image which was “constructed” by the writers and intellectuals of the late nineteenth century literary revival, a time of frantic nation-building across Europe, was still evident over a century later, prompting the bestselling chronicler of globalisation Thomas Friedman to write in his New York Times column in 2001:

People all over the world are looking to Ireland for its reservoir of spirituality, hoping to siphon off what they can feed to their souls which have become hungry for something other than consumption and computers.

And as recently as 2010 the following headline appeared in the Financial Times: “On a journey across Ireland Jan Morris finds a sense of community and spirituality undiminished by the country’s recent travails”.

But in spite of the well-established staying power of brand images it was only a matter of time before we would be affected by our starring role in the most spectacular economic crisis since the Great Crash.

Is Ireland Losing Its Cool?

Established brand images are very slow to change, but it would be very optimistic to believe that the nature of our recent vicissitudes haven’t had some detrimental effect and there is some statistical evidence from the Anholt worldwide nation brand syndicated survey that our image has slipped a little, in particular among younger age groups.

It is not difficult to find reasons why this is happening. Firstly the speed with which Ireland changed from being one of the poorer parts of Europe to one of the richest attracted attention all over the world. This being so, the extent of the collapse also attracted attention. Secondly, though the economic boom was still, in the immortal word of the then Taoseach, “boomier”, it was becoming dangerously dependent on property, a danger to which Irish people themselves, long obsessed with land and property, seemed to be oblivious. Some commentators were less than generous: a long and detailed article in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis painted a grim picture of our plight but, in contrast to much comment about Ireland’s misfortunes in the past, Lewis made no attempt to express sympathy, seeming to imply that we were a bunch of self-absorbed clowns who fully deserved our fate: “Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided that what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another.” Unlike poetry, property is not cool, and constantly talking about it is decidedly uncool.

Lewis wasn’t the only overseas commentator who noticed there was something amiss, Gary Younge, a Guardian columnist obviously aware of the antics of high-profile Irish property developers in London, noted in his book on globalisation and identity: “No longer thinking of itself as the poor hapless step-child of Europe, a mood of self-respect approaching preening self-regard took hold.”

A third possible reason was the absence in the new century of some of the cultural stimulants to Ireland’s cool image that had characterised the 1990s: U2, Riverdance and The Commitments were not replicated in the 2000s.

A few years before the millennium, Derek Mahon, now middle-aged and free from the excesses of youth, pointedly alluded to our declining cool:

Where once it never drizzled but it poured
In dirty Dublin and even in grim Belfast
Our cherished rainfall is a thing of the past
Our climate now that of the world at large
In the post-Cold War, global-warming age
Of corporate rule, McPeace and Mickey Mao ‑
Imitative in all things we mimic now ‑
Who were once known for witty independence
And valued things beyond the world of sense
Subscribing eagerly to the post-modern kitsch
We shirk our noble birthright ‑

Regaining our Cool

It is important at this stage not to exaggerate any loss of cool. Nation brand images change at a glacial pace, if at all, and although the events of the last decade may have created a momentary frisson it is unlikely that the damage will be permanent, unless we ignore the issue and blithely assume it is of little or no importance. I have argued elsewhere that brand, although difficult to quantify, can have a significant effect on our ability to attract tourists and foreign direct investment and to persuade people to purchase our goods and services.

We should therefore approach the issue from two perspectives. The first is to acknowledge that our national brand image is important and attempt to monitor its progress on a continuous basis. The Anholt annual global syndicated survey referred to earlier is a good starting point. It enables us to assess our image in relation to other countries, it provides some diagnostic data to explain our positioning and because it is updated annually it gives some indication of whether we’re making progress or not. However we must be conscious of the tyranny of numbers: the precision of the figures on the printed report cover up the inevitable inconsistencies that arise when the same questions are asked of small samples from widely different audiences across the world. It would also be useful to monitor all references to Ireland in the world’s media with a view towards assessing the tone as well as the content so that we can build up an impression of how Ireland is perceived from a brand perspective.

We should also be monitoring what is being said about Ireland on social media. The twenty-first century is full of people who go on about themselves all the time; they diarise, chat, upload photographs of everything they do. It’s all very self-indulgent, but carefully monitored it represents a valuable resource that can help us understand any changes in how we are being perceived.

The second perspective is having collected the available information about the current position of our brand image to then decide whether we need a plan to accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives. The most pressing task at this stage is to decide what exactly we want our image to be. The late Steve Jobs, in a famous definition of his vision for the Apple brand twenty years ago, made the point that “This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world out and we’re not going to get a chance for people to know much about us, no one is, so we have to be really clear about what we want people to know about us.” Jobs went on to ask the question; “What is Apple and what is it we stand for? Where do we fit in this world?” He then answered the question: “We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better and that the people who think they can change the world are the people who probably will.” In the twenty years since Jobs outlined this vision for the business Apple has grown to become one of the most profitable and admired companies in the world. Job’s inspirational vision must surely have played a significant part in that achievement.

Yeats and his fellow nation brand-builders in the late nineteenth century were very clear about what they wanted the world to know about Ireland. We were to be clearly positioned ‑ in contrast to Britain ‑ as living richly as opposed to striving to be rich. Yeats’s biographer Roy Foster has argued that the poet believed that “Ireland’s spiritual idealism must be forged into a new moral outlook for a dawning century”, and later De Valera expanded on this vision by claiming that “the Irish have always stressed spiritual and intellectual rather than material values”. But as that century drew to a close, these claims were looking a little threadbare and as Fintan O’Toole has observed: “The Irish have always wanted to be as well off as anyone else. The things that outsiders tended to admire about the place ‑ its empty spaces, its vestiges of an older culture, its apparent simplicity ‑ they were also the things that Irish people wanted to escape. They were marks of failure.” Joe Lee’s line about the Irish being spiritual “only if spirituality can be defined as covetousness tempered only by sloth” must also be taken into account.

An alternative vision has been put forward by the author of the market research study on nation-branding referred to earlier:

One could well imagine Ireland “positioning” itself as the economy that first finds light at the end of the post-Washington Consensus tunnel, the first country to pilot and prove a new form of capitalism ‑ more moral, more fair, more balanced more human.

This could be a very attractive positioning but there is nothing in our political or business history which suggests that we could adopt this stance with any credibility. During the decades before the financial crisis we were one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Washington Consensus and as O’Sullivan (2006) has pointed out: “The idiom of Irish business is fast, aggressive and shiny, not unlike the newly monied classes of other emerging economies.” Successful brand positioning must be rooted in the reality of a business, (or country) and its culture.

A more fruitful starting point might be to build on Bryan McMahon’s remarkable vision for Listowel: “I have harboured the absurd notion of making this small town, a mere speck on the globe, a centre of the imagination.” We could do worse than seek to apply this ambition for the whole country by positioning ourselves at the intersection of creativity and innovation, “an island of creativity and innovation”. This could be an attractive stance in today’s world, where businesses are seeking more imaginative solutions, tourists are looking for meaningful cultural experiences and everyone is seeking to add to their store of what Pierre Bourdieu has referred to as “cultural capital”. It also helps that we have some previous form in this area. The Farmleigh conference of 2010 called in response to the financial and economic crisis concluded that Irish culture was likely to prove the most sustainable factor in stimulating economic recovery. Richard Kearney (1984, 2000) has shown how creativity, counter-intuitive thinking and imagination have deep roots in Irish history:

Culturally and historically we have made a point for better or worse of occupying that territory called imagination ‑ this passion for the possible that imagination represents where you have to take a leap of faith is deeply rooted in the Irish psyche, that given our history and our set of choices in response to what seemed like a repetitive series of impossible obstacles, imagination became at once a mode of compensation.

Formulating a strategy for making the most of this positioning should now be a matter of urgency and perhaps we should begin by contemplating the significance of these lines from Derek Mahon’s latest poem, “Dreams of a Summer Night”, which concludes his recently published New Collected Poems:

Strangely after the gold rush and the slump
what remains is a great sense of relief.
Can we relax now and get on with life?
Step out and take a deep breath of night air
in peace not having always to defer
to market forces, to the great hegemony
the global hurricane, the rule of money?

Can we turn now to the important things
like visible scents and how even silence sings?

The main books referred to in this article are Cool Rules by Dick Pountain and David Robins, Reaktion Books, 2000; The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank, University of Chicago Press, 1996; The Rebel Sell, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Capstone 2006; Culture and Consumption by Grant McCracken, Indiana University Press, 2005; New Collected Poems by Derek Mahon, Gallery Press, 2011.


John Fanning is former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising. He currently lectures on Branding and Marketing Communications at the Smurfit Business School.



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