Levi Strauss boldly combines poetry and nostalgia in new ad campaign

While I dimly know the history of Levi Strauss & Co. -- its connection to the wild-west gold rush roots of the America I call my own, its story heavy with lore and imagery of the original 49ers panning for gold and hammering railroad spikes -- this connection has weakened with its advertising messages in the past few decades.

A recent ad campaign for its flagship 501 brand, "Live Unbuttoned," was nothing if not sexy. In fact, it was all sex, with little left to the imagination. "Who do you want to unbutton?" the print ads asked. Bold.

But sex doesn't always sell.

Levi shook up its marketing strategy in December by choosing Wieden + Kennedy, the Portland-based ad firm that created Nike's Just Do It campaign, to run its American creative marketing. Levi's worldwide ad firm of 26 years, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, was kept on for its marketing outside of the U.S. It was a stunning blow, and the folks at W+K delivered last week with the new "Go Forth" campaign. This campaign does what the last few left behind: it sells. Most pointedly, it sells nostalgia, which in my opinion, is far more universal and effective a selling tool. While I'm sure some customers wanted to get into its models' pants, this new campaign has me wanting to get into Levi's pants.

That the advertisements, meant to appeal to Levi's male customers in their teens and twenties -- the "O" generation -- have gotten to me, a 35-year-old woman, means either that they missed the mark or they cut a wide swath through the demographics, felling us all with one stirring set of imagery. I tend to believe the latter. (It's got Barbara Lippert at Adweek revved up, too, and I'd guess she's in a still-older age bracket.) Combining poetry with black-and-white images of Americana, and a soundtrack of trains and fireworks, the ads are both exciting and deeply comforting.

The above advertisement is already the most talked-about of the campaign, combining what is thought to be a wax recording of Walt Whitman reading his 1888 poem "America" with the images from the campaign, including young and old people working hard, playing hard, and in the end, an interracial couple kissing. The images are evocative and stirring, but not at all controversial. Here we have: Patriotism. Unity. The value of physical labor. The beauty of rural America. Fireworks.

The campaign's goal is not just to reconnect to Levi's nostalgic origins, but also to demonstrate the product's value at a time when customers are looking to find products whose merits go beyond an image. In fact, its print ads go so far as to offer customers a job, 1930s-style: contribute to the "New Declaration of The United States of America" or upload digital photos, video or text as part of "The New Americans: A Portrait of a Country," telling stories of your America. And there are prizes. And you can log in with Facebook. (And yes, there is mention of Twitter.)

The social media bit seems mostly window-dressing to me, faking at cool, but the campaign is bold and perfect for the new slow living: These young people are, after all, becoming farmers at a far greater rate than any generation in the 20th century; they're beginning to trade the value of money for the value of creating things; they're probably reading more poetry, too. And if they haven't already, they may just begin after these stirring ads. This campaign is just the thing.

Bartle Bogle had better be paying attention.


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