Varnish Remover

Slates You Can Wear

Hotel Ballroom, produced by Paul Wolfe, Jeff Iorillo, Corey Stolberg, and Robert Gondell of Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco.

The inevitabilities of age dictate that Generation Xers grow up, get a job, and go places–whether they want to or not. But the age-old question remains: What to wear? This spot, Hotel Ballroom, produced for Levi Strauss by Foote, Cone & Belding, suggests to Gen-Xers that your pants can have the same attitude as you–still young (they’re Levi’s, but not jeans), and a good fit; comfortable in your own identity, yet at ease in the establishment world. Well, just enough to get by.

At first look, we don’t know what the ad’s about. We see a twentysomething guy, wearing a tie but no coat (it’s in the garment bag–wear it only when you have to), entering a grand hotel. The lobby, which is shot in black and white, possesses a grandeur seldom seen today outside beaux-arts train stations. There’s a sense of something older in this space, but not of the past. It’s the time-space of grown-up commitments, where the Gen-Xer has to live–at least part time. Maybe color is reserved for nights and weekends. But even in the black-and-white world, the Gen-X attitude is still evident. The clerk, initially seen upside down, hints at a world turned on its head.

As the guy in the pants approaches the desk, the clerk accepts that he belongs. Like the pants, our hero fits–but in his own way. With a wan smile, he asks for the phone. The clerk half-reluctantly points it out. He can’t question the Gen-Xer, who’s carrying an attaché case; this guy could be anything, even a young computer mogul.

As he strides toward the phone, we hear the narrator’s voice for the first time: “You know those pants that always fit …” But our hero doesn’t find the phone; he gets a little lost. This world may accept him as fitting in–but he’s in it, not of it. He’s kind of an innocent abroad–innocent, of course, in a limited sense. He wanders into a political rally and ends up on stage. We see the scene from the Gen-Xer’s perspective: the politician’s evident insincerity (aren’t all politics staged and phony?) and the endemic irrelevance of the proceedings. Our hero’s demeanor speaks volumes, as the politician shakes his hand and photos are taken as mementos of this nonevent. But he does fit in–if only for a moment and in his own way–before extricating himself and moving on.

Almost Zelig-like in the succeeding scenes, he continues to fit in without getting permanently trapped. He backs across the stage toward a podium where they are giving out awards; is this a case of mistaken award-giving, or is he just a reluctant winner? He’s too young, and there are too many self-congratulatory award ceremonies anyway, the ad seems to say.

In another scene, he fits into a wedding (“There you are,” the grandmother says); but at least he’s not the groom–he’s not yet dressed in one of those (rented) black-tie outfits that never seem to fit. The background for the picture is a painted outdoor scene. That’s where he’d rather be. Instead, he’s suddenly in the hotel hallway again. Hands on hips, he pauses, then strides toward another of those situations in which maturing Gen-Xers will inevitably find themselves, as we hear the only other bit of narration in the spot: “These are those pants … these are Slates.” The hotel clerk’s hand hits the bell, summoning a bellhop to take our hero to his room–or is it a suite? What happened to the garment bag or briefcase? Did he check them? Did he ever find the phone–and where’s his cellular?

At the end, we glimpse once more the rich wood-paneled hallway. Does it lead to a dead end, or to a doorway? Whatever it is, the ad seems to say, you can go there wearing your Slates, and still be yourself.

You can write what you want on a slate; it isn’t just a copybook. You can go where you have to wearing Slates, without losing your identity. You’re still wearing Levi’s, even if you’re the only one who knows it. In their world, you’re still Gen-X, and you still see it all the same way–mostly.

–Robert Shrum