Levis, riots and teenage aspirations

Levis Go Forth
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Levis brand campaign, using Bukowski

This ad, surely one of the most evocative for a jeans company, has become iconic in a way. Just as the turbulence of May 1968 fueled a new mythology and counter-culture, will 2011 be remembered as a turning point in youth movements? I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet.

But typically for our age, this revolution has its corporate sponsor. The tone, the simplicity and the concept of this ad (developed by Wieden + Kennedy) are almost perfect as an exercise in zeitgeist. The cameras are all hand-held. Instead of copywriting, we get the poem “The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowski, part of the Go Forth campaign. The images are fleeting, liberating, breathless. The mad aspiration of youth is magically caught in just 60 seconds. It would take a cold heart not to be touched by them.

Could a brand like Levis condone protest?

Released in August 2011, could Levis have known there would be so many riots (referenced several times in the clip) and the importance they would play? I doubt it very much. Could Levis be seen to condone – even implicitly – the Arab Spring, the London riots, the Occupy movement or Madrid’s Indignants? Whatever the merits of these movements, the answer is clearly “no”.

There are limits, as Levis found. The spot, released a week after the London riots, was promptly banned in the UK. The timing, clearly, was off. But was the intention? Do we think this is appropriate?

Bukowski vs commerce

Another aspect of this ad is the use of Bukowski’s work. It’s no exaggeration to say that some people disliked it for just this reason. I see it as a branding exercise not tied to direct sales. But even this was too much for many people. It’s a shame as I still think it is one of the best readings of this poem by anyone. I had never heard it before coming across this spot. 

What strikes me is they used an actual poem for the campaign, not just a poetic line or two. It is the complete poem superbly narrated (for the record, I actually prefer this to Tom Waits’ reading). How could this not be a good thing? Brands sponsor artistic foundations the whole time. Why not sponsor what is in effect a poetry reading?

And one last thought: let’s turn it around and ask how we feel about Warhol’s depictions of Campbell soup cans? Dali’s activities in advertising? 

Incidentally, the music is Anjos by Julianna Barwick. 

Music by Julianna Barwick.

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