There is something quite special about the new Levi's campaign from Wieden & Kennedy.
It is an exquisitely wrought example of design, language, mood and spirit (indomitable spirit, to be precise). It is also visually and tonally consistent across all media platforms. And it is obviously grounded in research that discovered a romantic and idealistic tug among the target audience for the good ol' American pioneering imperative.
The flawless integration of design, strategy and theme, however, isn't what makes the campaign so special. What makes it special is that, more likely than not -- at least in the U.S. -- it will generate little more than a rolling of eyes on a mass scale.
Because it is too cleverly manufactured, too pompous, too precious. In short, too advertisingy.
Yep, it's no good because it's too good by half.
Those words are difficult to spit out, because worldwide we are so awash in poor craftsmanship of strategically empty ideas that you just want to applaud people who know what they're about. You certainly want to applaud those who hear the simple, emotive beauty of Walt Whitman's "America."
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time.
It's a stirring poem, and is even more moving in Whitman's own voice, as played from an old wax-recording treasure underneath the images.
If the language is too grandiloquent or elusive, Wieden offers its own more accessible version of similar sentiments. To wit: "I am the new American pioneer. Looking forward, never back. No longer content to wait for better times. I will make better times." And so on. The slogan, amid economic extremis, is "Go forth."
Let's just for a moment suppose that this inspiring, uber-optimistic worldview somehow addresses Levi's biggest marketing problem: its image of being a declasse discount-store jean amid premium-denim hipsters. Of that possibility we are dubious, but let's just say. The larger question is whether the bootstraps ethic will find a receptive audience in a dustbowl economy, and whether even the romantic admonition to "go forth" has any relevance to a target demographic that increasingly is going forth from their old bedrooms at Mom and Dad's to their places of under- or unemployment.
Levi's sales weren't down 12% in the last quarter for no reason. Do people who can't figure out how to cover the car payment, much less imagine the proverbial white picket fence, really want to be offered, as an alternative, some 19th-century concept of manifest destiny? We think not. So that's the first problem.
The second problem is the excessive-craftsmanship issue. Maybe it's refreshing to finally see an ad campaign aimed at people under 30 that doesn't get all self-referential and postmodern, that isn't ashamed to imbue a brand with something beyond irony. The fact remains, though, that this audience is sensitive about being manipulated.
That's why postmodernism abounds: It's a way to trick the audience by flattering them into thinking that they can't be tricked by plain old brand messages.
Who knows? Maybe potential Levi's customers will view all this high-flown, can-do-spirit stuff and be tricked into thinking that the unabashed romance of the appeal is flipping the bird at the smart-asses who think they can trick people into thinking they aren't being tricked.
Go back and forth all you like. It'll get you -- and Levi's -- exactly nowhere.