Ad Report Card

Walt Whitman Thinks You Need New Jeans

A stirring new ad campaign from Levi’s.

The Spot:A neon sign that says “America” is half-submerged in floodwater. A scratchy voice recording plays in the background—a man reciting a poem. In a series of intercut, black-and-white scenes, we see fireworks, children playing in run-down neighborhoods, an embattled business executive surrounded by an angry mob, and young people frolicking in blue jeans. “Go Forth,” reads a banner two people hold aloft as they run. A Levi’s logo pops up on the screen.

The previous Levi’s ad campaign was titled “Live Unbuttoned.” It featured smiling, attractive people dancing around to jumpy pop music. Watching those ads now, it seems clear they were conceived before the fall 2008 financial plunge. They already feel irrelevant—an attempt to capture a zeitgeist that’s evaporated.

In December 2008, Levi’s ditched its old ad agency and signed on with Wieden + Kennedy (the talented ad makers responsible for creating many of Nike’s epic, stirring, one-minute anthems). The spots that W+K came up with—this new campaign is labeled “Go Forth”—have been running since the summer in movie theaters and, increasingly, on television. From the moment we see that “America” sign half-sunk in inky water, we know we’re watching something new. The campaign inhabits a different universe from the one depicted in “Live Unbuttoned.”

For one thing, it’s a universe in which the ever-present soundtrack is Walt Whitman poetry. This spot uses a wax cylinder recording believed to be audio of Whitman himself reading from his poem “America.” The second spot in the campaign employs a recording of an actor reading Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!

Whitman is an involuntary spokes-celebrity here, and perhaps you deem this ad a desecration of all he stood for. I can’t say I blame you. But were you forced to choose a clothing line for our favorite barbaric yawper to rep, you might choose this one. Levi’s is the rare American brand that was actually around when Whitman was alive. And there’s logic to this match between a quintessentially American poet and a quintessentially American product. Whitman’s verse allows Levi’s to evoke not only its proud history but a forward-looking present—the pioneering, American mindset that Whitman captured and that Levi’s hopes to embody.

(And I’d always wondered what it would look like if stylish music videos were set to classic poetry. Now I know. I eagerly anticipate the MTV poem-video awards. “Yo, Walt, I’m really happy for you—I’ma let you finish, but Philip Larkin had one of the best poem-videos of all time!”)

That scratchy Whitman recording also sets a mood of vague disquiet. Paired with the music behind it and the startling crack of sudden fireworks, that raspy, distant voice sounds rather ominous. Where the “Live Unbuttoned” ads were about carefree self-expression, this “Go Forth” spot is about squalor and anxiety.

Director Cary Fukunaga (who made the Sundance favorite Sin Nombre and is slated to direct an adaptation of Jane Eyre) filmed much of the ad in Katrina-ravaged sections of New Orleans. The people wearing Levi’s in the spot do not sport sparkling, coordinated outfits as their counterparts did in the previous campaign. They are often barefoot, shirtless, and sweaty, and their jeans look dirty and lived-in.

The only kempt character here is the suit-clad businessman we briefly glimpse toward the beginning of the spot. And he’s got his own problems. We first see him being mobbed by angry citizens. Later, he sits at his desk in his skyscraper office, looking scared and defeated. No doubt Fukunaga is getting topical by tapping into ambient CEO hate. But these scenes feel out of place—awkwardly wedged into a visual mix that’s otherwise about unspoiled kids overcoming fear and angst. The ad is on stronger footing when (as signaled by that “Go Forth” banner we glimpse) it acts as a galvanizing call to generational action: Times may be tough, but we’ve been here before, and America’s youth will not be broken.

In terms of its sounds and images, this is without doubt the most arresting ad I’ve seen all year. It is expertly crafted and beautifully shot. The sound editing is superb, punctuating Whitman’s chant with those tense fireworks explosions. As a whole, it is so jarring and unexpected that I sit up and watch when it comes on—even after several viewings.

But will it sell jeans? Hard to say. Harder in that, a few months ago, I graduated from Levi’s 18-to-34-year-old target market. Who knows what floats those whippersnappers’ boats these days? I’ve been in movie theaters when this ad played during previews, and the audience seemed transfixed—left in stunned silence when the ad faded out. But a friend says he saw it in a theater where, at the end, someone yelled, to much deflating laughter, “They’re pants!”

Among those who work in advertising, there is an eternal battle between the desire to make art and the imperative to serve commerce. This 60-second film is, to me, a small artistic gem. Right up until that Levi’s logo at the end.

Grade: A, for astonishing aesthetics.