Levi’s Attempt at Sincerity in Advertising

Last year, when Levi’s launched its ‘Go Forth’ advertising campaign, it was greeted with less-than-favorable reactions from around the Internet (see here, here, and here). Critiques ranged from claims the campaign was racist (print ads featured mostly white men and women) and depicted misplaced interpretations of freedom, to it being hopelessly vague in its themes of hard work and youthful promise — all set to the words of Walt Whitman.

The world is your oyster! Everything is possible! Purchase jeans, then your dreams will be realized! It was easy to look at these ads, and watch the accompanying television spots, and feel Levi’s had tried a little too hard to create an emotionalized marketing monster informed by market research, focus groups, and other psychographic data. Last year, when the campaign launched, Bob Garfield over at Advertising Age made some valid points:

It is an exquisitely wrought example of design, language, mood and spirit (indomitable spirit, to be precise). It is also visually and tonally consistent across all media platforms. And it is obviously grounded in research that discovered a romantic and idealistic tug among the target audience for the good ol’ American pioneering imperative.

The flawless integration of design, strategy and theme, however, isn’t what makes the campaign so special. What makes it special is that, more likely than not — at least in the U.S. — it will generate little more than a rolling of eyes on a mass scale.

Because it is too cleverly manufactured, too pompous, too precious. In short, too advertisingy. (via Advertising Age)

Too advertisingy indeed. Which might explain why Levi’s and Wieden + Kennedy, the ad firm at the helm of the campaign, have somewhat altered their creative approach:

The ads are being filmed and photographed in Braddock, Pa., which attracted national attention in the last year for attempts by the mayor, John Fetterman, to address the dire straits of the town after decades of economic decline.

Levi Strauss executives plan to put their money where their pants are, donating more than a million dollars over a two-year period to assist Braddock in renovating a community center and further developing an urban farming program.

And the company will forgo using models for the campaign, instead casting residents of the Braddock area and paying them to appear in the ads. Some ads will include the words “Braddock, Pa.” in a corner. (via New York Times)

The first time around, Levi’s attempted to channel gritty realism by simulating it. Now, by going on-location to Braddock — a Rust Belt town that’s lost 90% of its population since the American steel industry dried up — Levi’s will attempt to capture gritty realism in action. As the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, Braddock once embodied the spirit of the American worker, which makes the town a receptive home to the words of a poet like Walt Whitman. But that spirit of an unswerving American work ethic has long since been replaced by vacant storefronts and burned-out homes, contentious small town politics and a sense of abandonment.

It’s obvious Levi’s is hoping this move will lend a sense of sincerity to its beleagured ad campaign. Which, who knows, it very well may. After all, it’s a nice gesture — whether PR-motivated or not — for Levi’s to invest a million dollars over two years in Braddock. And the company’s choice to cast residents instead of actors is well-intentioned. It will be interesting, however, to see how these ads portray the people of Braddock, and how the investment in the community will help sustain the momentum built by Mayor Fetterman and his friends.

(Photograph: The Mill. Caption: Scene from “To Work,” part of Levi’s “Go Forth Ready to Work” campaign.)