Ad Report Card: Levi’s Navel Maneuvers

A number of people have written in with comments about the Levi’s “Belly Button” ad. I’ll get to some of those comments momentarily, but first I’ll note that, having praised a different Levi’s spot less than a year ago as perhaps a turning point in the sorry disintegration of a great American brand, I’m a little distressed to see how little staying power that campaign apparently had. (The company recently announced that it expected its annual sales to be down 3 percent to 5 percent this year.) Anyway, if you haven’t seen the spot, here it is.

The ad: There isn’t much to summarize here. Basically, the ad is a montage of female midriffs—bare stomachs, navels prominent. Navels very prominent, because in fact these bellybuttons are singing. They’re singing “I’m Coming Out,” a song made famous by Diana Ross, but here sung (for reasons that escape me) by Sopranos actress Jamie-Lynne Sigler. So, just to reiterate: It’s a bunch of singing bellybuttons, performing on behalf of Levi’s “Superlow Button Fly 502 Jeans.”

The reaction: “Horrifying,” comments one friend of Moneybox’s. “A truly terrifying experience!” says another reader. “Disturbing,” commented a participant in a small (one-person) focus group at Moneybox headquarters (her hand reflexively clutching at her navel, just in case, I guess). These people have a valid point. The ad is creepy.

On the other hand, it’s hard to look away, and there is of course the theory that talked-about advertising is good advertising, period. My feeling is that even if that’s true, this ad was not a very good idea, and it’s really indicative of the identity crisis that continues to screw up the meaning of the Levi’s brand. Some Levi’s spots of recent vintage, including the one I wrote about last year, as well as a more recent “Kung Fu Karaoke” series (which you can also see at the Levi’s Web site), turn on an unself-consciousness that seems in sync with Levi’s—it’s a brand that is supposed to be above the idea of trendiness and fashion and worrying about what other people think.

So a spot with singing bellybuttons, in addition to inducing a lot of wincing, comes across as a weird zig where Levi’s ought to zag. Suddenly the company is practically begging you to believe that Levi’s are hip: “See how edgy we are?” It’s embarrassing, and doubly so because the whole thing seems dated (dated in a bad way, not a “vintage” way). The low-jeans, exposed-midriff era is, after all, not exactly a recent development; indeed American navels have been “coming out” for so long that, if anything, this ad seems likely to end up being a prelude to a cover-that-bellybutton backlash. Which would be a shame.

The grade: Having said all that, I concede that the spot is an incredibly effective attention-getter, and it isn’t actually offensive or repulsive in any way—just sort of stupid. So I’ll give it a C-minus. But if the Levi’s brand management team is smart, they’ll limit this ad’s run. It’s not a spot that benefits from repeated exposure. So to speak.