New Levi’s commercial offers hope to dirty, half-underwater America

Woman, you also need a shirt.

Bitch, you also need a shirt.

If you’ve recently been to a movie targeted at 18- to 34-year-olds—Zombieland, say, or Couples Retreat, which are basically the same movie when you think about it—you’ve probably seen thew new “Go Forth” line of Levi’s commercials. The campaign involves a variety of spots for film, print and television, but the one I like best opens on a flickering neon sign half-submerged in floodwater. The sign reads, of course, “America,” and the ad proceeds—over a wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his famous poem of the same name—to show us a series of slums, riots and scenes of rural poverty, intercut with shots of dirty children/manchildren running around in blue jeans, ending with the gunshot crack of fireworks and the admonition, “Go forth.” As usual, by “like best” I mean “am most disturbed by.” Video after the break:


First of all, I think we can agree that Walt Whitman would strenuously object to having his poetry used in a pants advertisement 120 years after his death, right up until he discovered that the advertisement involved shirtless young men.* Screen shot 2009-11-03 at 10.14.55 AMThat’s about where agreement on this commercial stops, though. If you ask Seth Stevenson over at Slate, the spots are a genius encapsulation of the national zeitgeist, perfectly pitched to the battered-but-not-broken determination of the Great Recession. Bob Garfield at Ad Age says the same thing, but asserts that it’s no way to sell jeans. “Levi’s sales weren’t down 12% in the last quarter for no reason,” he says. “Do people who can’t figure out how to cover the car payment, much less imagine the proverbial white picket fence, really want to be offered, as an alternative, some 19th-century concept of manifest destiny?” Me-oww! That’s why I read Ad Age, right there.

Garfield is right when he says the fundamental assumption of these spots is that America is a blasted wasteland of consumer despair. They’re a far cry from Levi’s pre-2008 campaign, the “Live Unbuttoned” series, which featured a bunch of drunk people trying to do karate outside the Bear Stearns building. When you start your ad with the word “America” experiencing electrical failure as a result of drowning, you send a clear message. The Go Forth ads were shot on location in post-Katrina New Orleans, and they also feature repeated images of an executive type alternately being accosted by an angry mob and suffering an existential crisis in his bajillionth-floor office. “Grown,” Whitman intones over an image of a seven year-old girl. “Ungrown,” he says, and we cut to the aforementioned executive. Then we get some hipsters, followed by some fireworks, followed by a gunshot sound and the eerie flapping of the Go Forth banner being carried—literally—down a darkened country road. “Bikus Likus” it ain’t.

In terms of craftsmanship, the ads are a giant leap forward. It’s easier when your copywriter is Walt Whitman, but this spot is a damn sight better than a bunch of models standing around smirking with their hands in their pockets. Levi’s is an established company, though, and production values are not likely to convince anyone of the quality of their blue jeans. Chances are, you know as much about Levi’s now as you ever will. The question is, what is this commercial supposed to do for the Levi’s brand?

Levi’s sales were down 12% last quarter, a drop Garfield attributes to “its image of being a declasse discount-store jean amid premium-denim hipsters.” If that’s the problem, though, shouldn’t they be selling better in these straitened times? It seems more likely that Garfield is an old dude whose mental Jeans Hierarchy still has Guess? at the top, and he doesn’t realize that Levi’s is just as deep into the premium market as Diesel or Calvin Klein. The distinguishing feature of this spot, in comparison with other ads aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds, is its total absence of irony. The Go Forth commercial is sincere as shit, with its romantic poem and its black kids riding horses and its constant, shirtless running. When the Levi-Strauss Corporation tells us that their product is “perennial with the earth,” they’re not selling fashion—they’re selling authenticity. The post-apocalyptic imagery and the emotional progression from urban despair to rural enthusiasm suggests an America stripped down to its barest essentials: the land, its people, their yearning and their jeans.

As is usually the case when a product tries to position itself as Authentic, the ad tells us more about what Levi’s thinks about us than it does about actual jeans. For all their black-and-white earnestness, the people in this commercial are basically the same hyperkinetic rebels as the dirt bike-riding preadolescents wearing Levi’s in the 1990s. The only real difference is that in 2009, people over the age of 20 can wear jeans on a regular basis and still be taken seriously. Despite the formal beauty and timeliness with which it is presented to us, the message behind Levi’s marketing remains frustratingly simple: buy shit. The fundamental Levi’s Commercial Person is the same as he ever was: young, full of energy, and totally directionless. Where are we supposed to Go Forth to, exactly? We’re not even wearing shoes.

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  1. Glad I’m not the only one who found that commercial annoying and confusing.

    Seriously, I wonder how much advertising like this actually influences sales. Not that it could be measured scientifically. Our brains work in mysterious ways.

    TV: Levi’s are for cool, fit people, and are of high quality.

    Ego: Huh? WTF was that commercial about?

    a week later…

    Ego: These pants have holes. I need new pants.


    Ego: I guess I’ll buy Levi’s.

    Seriously, though, can a multi-million dollar advertising campaign like this actually increase the sales of an established brand? I understand the informational part of advertising: “Here at the Levi’s Labs, we’ve created a new product! They’re longer than shorts, but shorter than pants. And they’re not capris, because capri pants are for women/fags. Half shorts, half pants, behold the Shats!” I.e., buy our shit because it’s new/different/ironically awesome.

    But, 6-12 months from now when Americans again succumb to the programming from Big Brother and return to spending ourselves into oblivion, Levi’s sales will return to “healthy” levels. Levi’s executives will all pat each other on the back and say, “That advertising campaign was money well spent! Let’s give each other huge bonuses/handjobs!”

    And yet, we’ll be the same, broke, fat, old shlubs we were before we bought the Levi’s Jeans of Destiny. Where are our bonuses/handjobs?

  2. Respectfully, Paul, I’d argue that the people who find an interracial kiss offensive might benefit from seeing it. This country is rapidly moving toward a demographic distribution in which no one race is a majority, and that almost inevitably means more interracial couples. Those couples deserve a public that lets them make their own choices, and if a blue jeans commercial does a little to facilitate that, I say great.

  3. I totally disagree to this commercial displaying a black man kissing a white woman. Races should not mix. Our children have a hard enough time because of our selfish interest and curiosity of other races. The children should always come first. I’m not racist, but only think about the hard times our children go through. Just as a gay movie or commercial…if our children see this action, they are brain washed in thinking this is normal when it’s not.

  4. The white-girl black-boy kiss did it for me. I will never buy another Levi’s product as long as I live. Racist? yeah, I am for my race just like everyone else is for their race and I don’t care what anyone thinks.

  5. The latest commercial with the black guy and the white girl did it for me. No more Levi’s for me. The commercial is disgusting. It’s more than enough that we see African Americans in EVERY commercial that is shown on TV. They’re 10 to 12% of the population in the U.S. yet you would think they are the majority based on how often you see them. If they’re not black….then they’re a mix of black and white. This is getting crazy. When will it end?

  6. When will it end? By “it” do you mean “the presence of black people in America?” I don’t know where you people come from, but you’re racists. What do you care if two actors of different races kiss in a jeans commercial? Or, for that matter, if a bunch of black guys marry a bunch of white girls? What possible argument could you have against that that doesn’t involve the phrase “racial purity?”

  7. “I totally disagree to this commercial displaying a black man kissing a white woman. Races should not mix. Our children have a hard enough time because of our selfish interest and curiosity of other races. The children should always come first.”

    “This is getting crazy. When will it end?”

    Inter-racial relationships only damage children as long as we pass down our prejudices to them. I grew up in a somehwat racist environment, but my children have friends that are many different colors and don’t think much about it.
    I don’t believe that we MUST become a “grey” society, with everyone a mix of all races, but we MUST get over our intolerance.
    Instead, we can discriminate against people for being ignorant, intolerant, or just plain mean.

  8. I stopped buying these stupid jeans a while back when they had commercials with girls that looked like they were 10-12 yrs old, stripping down to what appeared to be a sexual experience w/a boyfriend.

    They suck anyway.

  9. I was very offended by the commercial. When do you ever see a white man with a black woman on mainstream TV? You don’t because black men will be offended. I’m tired of the double standard. Also we don’t need To fill more liberal dumb white girls’ heads with this garbage. The idiots see this stuff on TV, next they are single mothers with mixed children. The establishment is trying to dilute the white race out of political relevance so they can forge a one world government welfare state so they can abolish freedom and the constitution and control every aspect of our lives.

  10. The above argument is impossible to argue against. First, it is air tight (obviously). Second, I doubt anyone who believed such a claim could hear anything through the tin foil.

  11. When do you ever see a white man with a black woman on mainstream TV? I’m pretty sure it happens in Roots, and I think in Gone With the Wind—pretty much anything that depicts the 300 year period during which black people were enslaved by American whites. So you think there’s an “establishment” that controls the media and is engaged in conspiracy to create a one-world government? And you don’t think it’s white?

  12. What worries me most is that its clear that these racists above have enough free, and willingness to waste it, to search the internet for every opportunity to promote racism.

  13. This is by far my most successful post in term of Google searches. I assume that whatever weird Nazi blogosphere determines the movements of these people has been up in arms about the Levi’s ad for a while, now. Read a book, assholes.

  14. I will never, ever buy levi jeans again. If they were the last shard of clothing on earth I would go without. So let me list off the problems with this, disrespect to America, disrespect to a classic poet, showing america as a dirty place with poor people and what looks to be a tied up white woman(her arms are in the air) kissing a black man with gun shot type thunder in the backround. This is supposed to make me want to buy jeans? This makes me want to puke. I have thrown out all 4 pairs of levis I owned and bought new pairs of wranglers to replace them. No I am not a racist, I am a american patriot and I am disgusted by this brand.

  15. So Patriotic. Thomas Jefferson would be proud. Oh, wait… no he wouldn’t.

    I am thrilled by what this post has become and look forward to its future.

  16. They just keep trickling in, don’t they? I got news for you, Casey: America _is_ a dirty place with poor people. While your big pale patriotic ass is worried about whether some white girl somewhere is kissing a black guy, the rest of us are trying to figure out what to do about things like poverty and sanitation. Which approach, do you think, is actually doing more for the country you claim to love?

  17. It is so refreshing to see so many people writing in to condemn this interracial black boy/white girl kiss…it is one of the most distasteful offensive things I see happening an a rapid increase these days – it both saddens and inferiorates me (and I am not easily offended)!!! I was going to write an expose to Levis over this in an attempt to get the commercial pulled, but decided not to ‘rock the boat’, as for Levis…I am done! It is a shame too, b/c with a small waist (usually measuring 30″ in their jeans and less than that in most other brands) and large legs (as a result of biking and MMA) their “loose” jeans were some of the only ones under $180 I could fit into properly…uggh!

    I decided to boycott Levis and I urge all others offended to do the same – it may be the only way some of these companies learn! I may even campaign against their product for this reason…they dun pizzed me off!!

  18. I for all time emailed this blog post page to all my associates, as if like to read it afterward my friends will too.||Can you please send an e-mail to me the code for this script or please tell me in detail concerning this script?||Your method of describing all in this post is in fact nice, every one can easily be aware of it, Thanks a lot.

  19. Please STOP pushing the idea of black men and white women together. I will stop buying your product if I continue to see it. Thank you.

  20. You are all disgusting ignorant racists and I hope people like you die off or get pushed out of this country. You say you’re patriotic yet are the dipshits bringing down the country. Totally pathetic and worthless representations of the human race.

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