Walt Whitman and Blue Jeans

I’ve really enjoyed Levi’s recent ‘Go Forth’ ad campaign produced by the hotshot advertising firm of Wieden & Kennedy. I first saw one while watching a football game, and the entire room full of people gradually fell silent. That’s pretty impressive for a non-Super Bowl ad spot.

Beyond being visually arresting and creative, the campaign offers up a vision of America that (by mainstream Madison Avenue standards) is fresh and edgy. The basic set-up of the sixty-second commercials is flashing imagery of denim-clad youngsters moving frenetically. Sounds like a fairly typical clothing ad. Except that it includes footage of post-Katrina New Orleans and is set to a Walt Whitman poem – in one of the spots, (supposedly) the reading comes from a wax cylinder recording of Whitman himself. Put in comparison to a concurrently-running ad campaign by Wrangler that involves Brett Favre tossing a football to a George Thorogood soundtrack, and you really get a sense for just how different this campaign is:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdW1CjbCNxw]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2pIvg-2vEY]

The imagery isn’t super sophisticated – a neon AMERICA sign half-submerged in flood water opens and closes the “America” spot. Some people might feel that throwing in a kissing interracial couple (or a kissing gay couple in “OPioneers!”) is tokenizing. But Levi’s has managed to construct a divergent conception of what exactly is America, no small feat for a corporate ad campaign. The new commercials are oddly triumphant, but with a disquieting edge to them. Children are running through fields, but in this new world they’re doing so under a looming electrical grid. There is laughter and muscle-flexing and vibrancy, but it’s against a backdrop of chain-link fences or broken down buildings. Blue jeans have constituted an enduring symbol of rural, down-to-earth, industrial America, an image that Levi’s has helped to cultivate in its lengthy, 130+ year-old history.  The fact that the same company would now stake itself to such a contrasting campaign speaks volumes. Is Levi’s banking on a collective shift in the American psyche? That we are open to moving beyond a cornfields-and-cowboys idea of American denim? What exactly is the alternative vision they’re hoping the American consumer will identify with? I have no idea, and that’s part of what makes this campaign intriguing.

5 thoughts on “Walt Whitman and Blue Jeans

  1. Thanks for sharing the ad–it was beautiful to hear Walt’s own words (and got me to wondering why I’d never heard that recording before, despite being a huge fan of his work). The Wrangler ad, on the other hand–ugh.

    I suspect that Levi is attempting to appeal to the young artistic, and quite cynical, hipster crowd that tends to live/work/hang out in urban spaces. They’ve done a good job.

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