Lately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of “counterculture,” and its role in consumerism, and to a certain degree, politics.
Counterculture is defined as a subculture whose values, attitudes and norms of behavior differ significantly from the prevailing or mainstream social norm and cultural mores.
The term counterculture was coined in the 1960s. Certainly music and fashion were lasting manifestations of the ‘60s counterculture movement, but it was rooted in politics.
Sixties counterculture rejected the conservative societal norms of the decade that proceeded it. Youth rejected racial segregation, early support for the Vietnam War and, among other things, the traditional roles of authority and capitalism. Middle-class youth turned their attention toward social justice issues.
The counterculture of the ’60s seemed to die out in the 1970s, with at least part of the reason for that being that the youthful rebellion was effective, and many of its political goals were accomplished to a certain degree. Many other attributes of the generation were also absorbed — some may say co-opted or recuperated — by mainstream society.
While we continue to see battles waged on social justice issues, it isn’t hard to make the leap that the politics of the counterculture movement in the 1960s and the four decades that followed became the “new” mainstream. More on that later.
Much of what we consider to be counterculture these days is reflected in entertainment mediums, fashion and food, among other things. Counterculture may mean different things to different people, but ultimately, it is a way to stand out and be different.
Simple put, it’s “cool” to hate things that are popular and embrace that which is less known. Ironically, something considered “counterculture” often becomes exceedingly popular and mainstream.
For example, just a few years ago it seemed a little strange when your co-worker bucked watching television shows on the major networks or seeing movies at the theater to binge-watch original programming or find an obscure documentary on Netflix. Now, my mother has a Netflix account. A surefire way to identify that something is no longer “hip” is if it’s something you mom enjoys, I don’t care how old you are.
Modern counterculturalism, for the most part, is supposed to oppose consumerism and, to a degree, capitalism. Unconsumed counterculture becomes relegated to the dustbin of history.
Counterculture consumers, instead of giving their money to large corporations, wish to find niche outlets and smaller companies to purchase “better” (and often more expensive) goods from. In turn, many of these small companies turn into monolithic corporations. Consider Starbucks was once upon a time considered “counterculture” and still to some degree tries to embrace that image.
Despite in many ways being about rejecting the ideas of capitalism or consumerism, counterculture has become an incredible marketing tool. Companies have embraced the idea of being the “little guy” competing in a world of evil corporate giants to appeal to a certain segment in hopes of growing into a large, profitable business.
Which brings me to politics, and more specifically, the media that covers it. Conservatism is rarely thought of as counterculture, but as liberal values have become more accepted and mainstream over the past several decades following the ‘60s, it only makes sense that more conservative values would become the counterculture to that.
As a marketing strategy, it is essentially what Fox News has done over the last 20 years, marketing itself as an alternative to the evil “mainstream” media. While no one is going to confuse their political values, Fox News, like Starbucks, continues to embrace its little guy, counterculture image despite being the most viewed cable news network.
In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of the so-called “alt-right” and “alt-left,” thanks at least in part to niche “news” sites that cater to those with more extreme political views on both sides, using similar marketing strategies to make money by essentially tearing their own political parties into two factions and lampooning “mainstream” Republicans and Democrats.
One of the unfortunate tenants of counterculturalism is that it tends to force you to pick a side. As I mentioned earlier, the only way to stay “cool” is to hate or discredit the “mainstream,” even when that hatred is without merit. Spend any amount of time on social media, and you can see this manifest in any number of discussions about the most serious to innocuous of topics. Moreover, it leads to a doubling-down of sorts on consumption of whatever it is we deem to be “cool.”
Whether it’s TV shows, coffee or politics, the desire to be on the cutting edge is resulting in an even greater cultural divide among us. All the while, companies that have embraced counterculture as a marketing tool are taking it all the way to the bank.