Walt Whitman and the Levi’s ad

Walt whitman in 1887 from wikipedia Wieden + Kennedy uses the words of Walt Whitman in their current work for Levi's (the "America" and "Pioneer" spots in the "Go Forth" campaign).  They actually use Whitman's voice as well, recovering it from wax cylinders from the 1880s.

At first, it feels presumptuous.  Whitman is perhaps the American poet.  He helped grasp what America was and fashion the ideas that made it something we could think.  It is not too much to say he helped found America.  To see his language and voice leveraged for commercial purposes, is at first a little breathtaking. 

Whitman described himself this way: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest."  (Leaves of Grass)

If there is a brand that can claim these meanings for itself, it is Levi's.  Almost everything about the brand history and heritage gives it this opportunity…too rarely taken up.  The W+K spots do a nice job of evoking these meanings.  (Hats off to Susan Hoffman, the executive creative director of W+K, and Cary Fukunaga who directed "America" and M Blash directed "O Pioneer!")  The man and the brand are rich and endlessly complicated propositions.  I would very much have liked to have been in the room at W+K when they found one another. 

But there is another deeper reason why Whitman ought to appear in an American ad.  Advertising has taken up what Whitman thought was the poet's job.  All those grim protests from Mad Men notwithstanding, W+K and other agencies are now active inventors of American culture in a way very few poets can claim to be.  As Whitman said in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."

Haunted by the fashionable cant of the Frankfurt school, we are uncomfortable that Levi's should make use of Whitman.  But this is wrong.  I think it is thrilling to see these meanings circulating in our culture, passing from the poem through the advertising to the jeans, both resonating with and for the American experiment.  It is especially thrilling to hear Whitman's voice return to us from the 19th century, the muse himself made legion.  Whatever else it is, W+K's work is successful homage.  And America is usually too much a creation of Walt Whitman to pause and give him his due. 


See the ads and W + K account here

See the Wikipedia account of Walt Whitman here.

12 thoughts on “Walt Whitman and the Levi’s ad

  1. Brian

    This campaign is one of my top 10 ever. I get chills hearing Whitman’s voice coupled with the beautiful footage and the power of a great, great American brand. it gives me faith and hope and it reaffirms the power of symbolism, fiction and a desire for a rebirth of the soul of this myth that all great advertising, like all great narrative, can inspire.

    thanks for the post.

  2. Keid

    When advertising understands the power of archetypes, a masterpiece like this is born. The use – and approach – of Whitman legacy is thrilling. It’s not just beautiful – it’s something else: it’s like a return to human (not just american) roots. W+K has created masterpieces countless times, but, I don’t know… Susan Hoffman has done it more there. She has this special sensibility. Great post, Grant. Inspiring as always 🙂

  3. peter spear

    i wonder if there is something of a cultural responsibility that is inherent to being Levi’s that allows the geniuses who produced this work to even consider creating value like this.

    too often, perhaps, this kind of cultural significance is defined as a burden (we’re an institution, a tradition, a legacy) that runs counter to commercial interests. (let us not offend or be too bold for fear).

    and yet what is particularly powerful and, which you trace, makes this work so effective is that it assumes and embraces this responsibility. and it is a cultural responsibility that rewards those brands that (stealing your language) assume themselves to be a culture maker or poet.

    the question is, do you have to be levi’s to feel so free?

  4. Rick Liebling

    So, I’m with Grant on this. My first reaction to this campaign was very positive.

    My take here: http://www.rickliebling.com/2009/10/27/levis-goes-forth-finally/

    Now though I’ve read Christine Huang’s Huff Post article on this campaign (noted in my post) and the post referenced by Reg. G.

    Clearly this needs additional thinking. My revised take is that a certain really smart segment of the population, and possibly not the Levi’s target, is really down on this campaign for some legit reasons. Not being a Whitman scholar (I’m guessing the target demo isn’t either), it worked for me.

  5. Jacob Payne

    Levi’s aren’t American anymore. They may have started here, but they’re made in China. I would be insulted were I Whitman. We are constantly selling out our Americanism to other countries, this cheapens the meaning and sentimentality.

  6. Stephen Denny

    If I’m not mistaken (and I might be), the “red tag” jeans are still made here, while the “yellow tags” come from elsewhere. However, I digress.

    Using Walt Whitman’s writings and voice for an iconic American brand strikes me as very right. You don’t get much more American than Levi’s – just ask any hipster on the street in Harajuku.

    What sent me scurrying to the basement for my shotgun and canned rations was the imagery of this campaign. I hope this isn’t the America we all aspire to – it looks a bit post-Apocalyptic. I thought it was an ad for The Colony at first. The words are inspirational – the images were dark, furtive, and decidedly pessimistic. Quite the juxtaposition. Was that the point? Ask W&K.

  7. Carol L. Weinfeld

    I appreciate the lofty goals of Wieden+Kennedy and the beautiful images wedded to Walt Whitman reciting his poem. The spot fits with the brand and its history. However, I believe that the target does not appreciate nor is interested in Walt Whitman. They also do not want to be told to “go forth.”

  8. Obs

    Seemed to me like a pretentious attempt to attach way too much meaning to a pair of pants. Nice meaning for the brand to aspire to, but a hell of a jump from previous brand meanings to the current one.

  9. James

    People will love this campaign or hate. Good for Levi’s for having the courage to take the risk.

    I feel conflicted about the campaign — this is advertising at both its best and worst.

    Best in its use of imagery in the service of commerce. Mythmaking beyond the product and brand.

    Worst in its grafting of credibility onto a product that’s been at sea for so many years. The value built up by the life of a maverick repossessed by middling jeans.

    The work is clearly remarkable. But I think it also presents a very difficult challenge to the mundanity of reality. What do they do next?

    Will it be wall-to-wall uncle Walt? How many time will we hear the wax recordings? Is this durable value created or just a sideshow to remind us of how affecting great work can be?

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