Ads That Ignore The Only Icon They Have to Sell

By Published on .

Advertiser: Levi Strauss & Co.'s Levi's jeans
Agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York
Star Rating: 1.0

The new TV campaign for Levi's low-rise jeans is terrible.

It's sexy, intriguing, cinematic and -- like most of the past decade of Levi's advertising -- absolutely terrible.

Not even remotely true
"These spots are built on our iconic brand heritage and convey that signature modern, sexy, old school rock 'n roll look of Levi's," says the press-release blather attributed to Anna Brockway, Levi's brand director of marketing. And there's problem No. 1: The words aren't even remotely true.

Whatever "modern, sexy, old school rock 'n roll" is supposed to describe, it sure doesn't show up in the advertising from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York.

Indeed, there is nothing in either commercial that remotely reflects on Levi's brand heritage, much less its status as an icon. But for the last two seconds of each 60-second spot, you'd never know what brand is being advertised.

One spot is about a young woman who sneaks into a stolen-car chop shop to liberate her beloved old wreck. Another shows a gorgeous couple in a '67 Pontiac eluding a sinister SUV -- the who, where and why of the scenario in no way apparent. When the pursuers pass, the couple pushes the Pontiac into the river. But then the guy dives in to rescue a French dictionary, which he stuffs in the low-riding waist of his jeans.

'Sexy self-confidence'
The girl speaks French. We (and herein the gimmick) are left to fill in the many blanks.

The message? Let Ms. Brockway explain: "The heroes in both spots are bold and independent and possess a unique brand of sexy self-confidence -- they know what they want and in the end, they find a way to get it."

Would that the advertiser could. In its long, desperate quest to recapture the elusive aura of cool, Levi Strauss & Co. has offered "hard" jeans, invisible fornicators, a vagabond loser collecting plush animals in an old Chevy, delinquents on soap boxes promoting delinquency and one heroic fling with karaoke -- all to slide from $7.9 billion in 1996 sales to $4.3 billion in 2001 sales.

Self-inflicted decline
How? Some of the answers have to do with distribution and encroachment by private labels. But Levi's isn't, say, Polaroid; it isn't a victim of obsolescence or any other external forces beyond its control. It is a victim, above all else, of self-inflicted wounds: the unaccountable, unconscionable, systematic de-branding of itself.

Bizarre. What is Levi's, after all, but a brand? In literal terms, it's damn near the only true brand out there, burned into a thong of leather and stitched to the waistband -- nine square inches of cowhide constituting the only, priceless thing distinguishing the product from 100 competitors. And Levi's has been hiding it for years, like some nut at the Lazy Z ranch putting underpants on his cattle.

This time, instead of refocusing on its iconography, Levi's is chasing adolescent psychology, the allure of danger for its excitement, its erotic charge and its implicit rebelliousness.

Oh, yeah. That'll set the brand apart. Nobody's noticed that before. Versus, for one example (just off the top of our heads), slow-motion photography of cool-looking people doing ordinary things in their Levis, the camera lingering on the inimitable waistband leather to the strains of, maybe, "Mood Indigo."

Nah. Too dangerously rational.

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