Walt Whitman, Denim Salesman

A funny thing happened in the movie theater the other day. I was settling in for what would turn out to be another less-than-innovative independent film, when a commercial came on the screen and completely transfixed me. The first image of the commercial was of a neon sign reading “America” half submerged in a flooded cityscape. As Walt Whitman read a scratchy section of his poem, conveniently also titled “America,” images of the flooded city were juxtaposed with young, often shirtless coeds running through fields, which were then contrasted with an evil lone businessman in a decidedly boring suit. At the end, fireworks exploded in the sky, sounding eerily like gunshots, and a white woman kissed a black man. What’s this all an ad for? Jeans, of course.

Binary Data

It was the second installment of Levi’s “Go Forth” ad campaign, designed by the Portland advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy. The first commercial, which ran in the early summer, also makes use of Whitman, as an actor reads his “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” section from Leaves of Grass, which rallies the “youthful, sinewy races” to gather their pistols and sharp-edged axes (and apparently, their 501s) to debouch upon a “newer, mightier world.” Aside from their issues of vagueness or dogma, these commercials are remarkably effective. As I sat in the theater, munching on my popcorn, I let the familiar recitations and pretty multiracial youths wash over me. And days later I found myself thinking, gee, I should get some Levi’s.

How does this work? Is it really possible that Walt Whitman is selling me jeans? In a world where many twenty-somethings walk around in $200 designer denim, it was clear that Levi Strauss & Co., which reported a 12% decrease in sales last quarter, needed a new plan of action. But it is also a prime time for Levi’s to slip in—who knows how much longer the $200 designer denim crowd will be able to sustain those shopping habits. Levi’s needed to convince those who are about to jump the designer ship that their cheaper versions (they specialize in the under-$40 pair) are just as status-making. Their first go-to was Walt Whitman, who in the mid-1800s was quite possibly among the first generation of Brooklyn hipsters.

But, wait—this makes even more sense. It has been argued that recessions are in one sense equalizers, that when financial power is taken away from the upper echelons, that empowerment is redistributed among the common men. Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal wrote about the artistic boom that happened on the heels of the Great Depression, crediting it to the implosion of the class structure. Capitalizing on that theory, these Levi’s commercials are telling us this is our chance to “go forth,” embrace this newfound freedom, and capture our destiny. Who greater a spokesman for that message than Whitman himself, a romantic who was obsessed with freedom of all kinds—legal, intellectual, emotional, physical, sexual. Perhaps even Whitman, who was 34 years old when the Levi Strauss company first appeared, wore denim. And just like that, they’re the jeans of the revolutionaries. The young men and women in the commercials are still scantily clad, but that is only because their Levi’s are the only thing they own. Who has time for blazers and heels amid Whitman-esque pontification?

The ad campaign becomes excessively complicated once you visit the website. There you will find an accompanying legend about Grayson Ozias IV, who supposedly buried his treasure in 1853 after reading Walt Whitman and then mysteriously disappeared. Levi’s then provides instructions for a modern-day treasure hunt. I prefer to stick with the ads, to manifest my destiny in the dark moments before my $9 Peter Sarsgaard movie starts. Regardless, the DIY ethic and lo-fi approach is clearly meant to appeal to our post-bailout pockets and Obama-era brand of hope. When I watch the commercials, I am convinced that I am the mistress of my own fate. I’m just not sure if I’m okay with that fate being sold to me for $40 a pair by a man who worked nearly his entire life to eschew the mainstream. If Whitman wore jeans, he wore them because they were the clothes of the rebellious, not because they were the affordable uniform of the pretty.

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Published: November 30, 2009