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Monday, September 26, 2022

It’s rare that an ad campaign targeted toward our generation quotes a 19th-century poet, but that’s what Levi's did:

That TV commercial, which features a supposed recording of Walt Whitman reciting his poem “America,” is a part of a multimedia ad campaign called “Go Forth.” (The other commercial in the campaign—the artistically weaker ad, I think—features an actor reading excerpts from Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”)

In addition to the TV spots, the campaign uses billboards and posters, a curious Web site component that lets visitors annotate the Declaration of Independence and submit photos and stories that capture “Today’s America,” and a really weird real-life treasure hunt in which players search for $100,000 apparently buried somewhere in the country.

This campaign seems to be a strangely sincere attempt at capturing the zeitgeist, and now is as good a time as any to do so. After all, our country, in many ways, seems to be at something of a crossroads:

The typical notion of “rich equals successful” seems to be facing a serious challenge, with titans of banking and finance—the people a previous generation may have held as aspirational figures—being national embarrassments. There’s a serious civil rights movement—namely, the LGBT rights movement—that’s gaining slow but meaningful momentum. And people in our generation, especially those of us graduating this semester or next, are facing both a crippled economy and the realization that many of us have no idea what the hell we’re supposed to do next.

Maybe most interestingly of all, Levi’s is examining the zeitgeist through the prism of a sort of nuanced patriotism; suggesting, simultaneously, that our country has lost its way and that what’s past is prologue. The ads are almost daring us to reject the perversions that have apparently become American values—commercialism, conformity, superficiality, all represented by the submerged “America” sign in the commercial—and embrace the pioneer spirit of 19th-century America.

Which is a nice sentiment belied only by the fact that Levi’s is a big ol’ corporation selling mass-produced clothing intended to make young people look pretty. And damn it, there’s nothing really revolutionary about jeans. (This also makes the $100,000 contest look even more out of place than it already does.)

This raises the question as to whether or not it’s appropriate to use Walt Whitman’s poems—and his own voice, for that matter—to sell clothes. Seth Stevenson, the ad critic at Slate, makes a decent case for the inclusion of the poetry (Whitman is a “quintessentially American poet,” Levi’s is a “quintessentially American product,” and Whitman and Levi’s actually existed at the same time) and offers some laudatory words for the TV spots with which I generally agree.

I’ll add two points in defense of Levi’s use of Walt Whitman:

First, unlike other companies that try to commandeer values like boldness and adventurousness to build an unearned brand image, Levi’s has some cred if it wants to paint itself as a pioneer. Most recently, the company has a history of advocating for LGBT causes, including supporting Harvey Milk High School and joining the No on Proposition 8 campaign in California, which is still a pretty brave thing for a company to do—even one that assiduously tries to seem progressive and ahead of the cultural curve. (Walt Whitman is generally thought to be gay or bisexual.)

And second, theis shot in the “America” commercial:

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Interracial couples in ads are rare enough, but even rarer are interracial couples featuring a white woman and a black man being so sexually demonstrative. (Advertisers are likely scared of arousing old, racist ideas of white women being corrupted by black men.) This dovetails nicely with Whitman’s very confusing views of racism and slavery, which include an anti-slavery stance, an anti-abolitionism stance, and a view of black people that oscillated between admiring and unsympathetic.

While the campaign has gotten positive attention, it hasn’t been without its detractors. One critic, Bob Garfield of Advertising Age, says that the ads are “too cleverly manufactured, too pompous, too precious.” And I’m hesitant to get too sentimental over a company’s sales pitch whose ultimate goal is to make me fork over some money so they can make a profit on their wares.

But I appreciate the ads because it’s one of the few anythings that’s presenting something resembling the strange ambivalence of being a 20-something in 2010: fear at the uncertainty of the future; frustration at an inability to make plans that extend beyond a year; and a strange sort of excitement at the chance to do something unusual, bold, and meaningful that a bad economy and the terror of the unknown invites. Granted, I’d much rather get that from a 21st-century The Graduate or a Generation Y Douglas Coupland, but I’ll take what I can get.

I’ll freely admit my biases: I ardently support the LGBT rights movement (and Levi’s has won my love for its anti-Prop 8 stance). Plus, Walt Whitman is the favorite poet of one of my best friends, and thus, these ads make me think of her (love you, Ravey). So I might be a little predisposed to like these ads.

However, the TV commercials (if not their goofy contest) represent a decent stab at marketing towards our generation: we’re a little lost and confused and searching for meaning, and Levi’s wants to be a part of this conversation. And God help us all, nobody else seems to be talking, so Levi’s—you’ve got the floor.

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