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.