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:



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.