The Truth Hurts

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What do you do when suddenly you're not cool anymore? I certainly remember the shock of being informed by a third-grade classmate that I was no longer going to be part of the ruling posse-effective that afternoon. It was a defining moment of my eighth year and an important lesson in the cruel ways the winds of popularity can blow. I was strangely comforted to see Levi Strauss & Co.'s "What's True" campaign and realize that even a multimillion-dollar company can face the same fate.

Launched in November and reintroduced this spring, the TV and print campaign is part of Levi's bid to become cool again among teens. The ads, created with TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco, feature "real" teenagers and young twentysomethings riffing on matters as diverse and self-consciously risque as homosexuality, tattoos, surfing, drug use, and menages a trois. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the pleas of Levi's executives in the background: "Please, guys," they're crying, "can't we be in again? Pleeeeeze?"

You see, today's young ingrates, far from appreciating the 146 years of coolness Levi's has under its belt, have shown an alarming propensity for newer, more chic brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Arizona, Paris Blues, and Fubu. (Not to mention mainstream competitors like Lee and Wrangler, made by the VF Corporation, which now claims a bigger piece of the jeans market than any other single manufacturer.) These nasty upstarts have hacked away at Levi's market share, leaving it with 16.9 percent of the total jeans market in June 1998, compared with 31 percent in 1990, according to Tactical Retail Monitor. (In the same time period, VF grew its market share from 17.9 percent to 25.3 percent.)

It's not that Levi's is about to fold. In fact, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau, it's still the top jeans brand among teens. Rather, as Jane Rinzler Buckingham of Youth Intelligence puts it, "Most teens probably own a pair of Levi's, but Levi's may not be the next pair they want." Which is a nerve-wracking sentiment for a company with so many competitors snapping at its heels.

So far, Levi's calling card back into the cool crowd is meeting with mixed reviews. The company is on the right track by wooing the youth market so actively, but overall, the campaign falls flat.

"I think the ads are okay," says Jonathan Cropper, a New York City-based media consultant who specializes in the youth market and who worked with TBWA/Chiat/Day on developing a teen strategy for Levi's. "I give them a B-minus. They won't swing the dial in any huge way, but it's a step in the right direction."

That's a pretty tepid response to such a flamboyant campaign. So what's wrong with "What's True?" For starters, Cropper isn't that impressed with the look of the ads, nor is he convinced the kids are "real." (According to Levi's, they were pulled off the streets of Manhattan and filmed on the spot, given no direction as to what they should say, write, or wear.) More importantly, Cropper doesn't think the target audience will think the kids are real, a concern Buckingham of Youth Intelligence shares. Since this is a market that "assumes you're lying before they've even seen your ad," Buckingham says, the issue of authenticity is paramount: every actor in every TV commercial doesn't have to be a civilian, but if that's the claim, it damn well better appear to be true.

Cropper also complains that while participants' comments and self-created slogans are interesting, they're not relevant enough. In the print ads, kids hold up placards with non sequiturs like: "Music is my female soul" and "Conformity breeds mediocrity." In two of the better TV spots, they talk about using handrails as skateboard ramps and cutting class to surf. Cropper would have let them gab in the same freestyle manner, but on a more timely subject, like the millennium, or on a more risky subject, like whether they like Levi's ads.

Buckingham concurs. She figures the standard teenage response to the random musings will be along the lines of "Yea? And...?"

The campaign is successful in that it focuses on subjects dear to teens' hearts-music, close friendships, sex, diversity. The trouble is that despite this, and despite its name, the campaign doesn't manage to convey that feeling of truth, which is vital to good advertising. In other words, there are not going to be a lot of "ah, yes, that brand is about me" reactions after kids encounter "What's True." In fact, according to Buckingham, teenagers are likely to have the opposite reaction: "Teens are going to look at these and say, 'That's not me, that's not what I'm like.'"

Part of the problem is that the ads -while adorable to someone my age -are going to appear patronizing to the target group, Buckingham says. Others are just offensive. For example, the choice of a grinning teenage girl holding a sign that reads "I cant be predjudice Im mulatto" [sic] is incomprehensible. It seems either that Levi's is making fun of her or that she's mentally challenged. While this generation is known for being more accepting of difference, mental deficiency has yet to become a trait of the very cool, as far as I know.

Similarly, one of the TV spots features two girls who say their matching tattoos read "friendship" in Tibetan. They admit, however, that they don't actually know if the tattoos say this because they aren't familiar with the language and apparently didn't check with a reliable source. The girls seem, well, like idiots. Is Levi's making fun of them or it it portraying them as cutely dim? Either way, it's not going to sit well with an audience of their peers. Teens may be young but they're not stupid, and they don't take kindly to being portrayed as if they were.

The $64,000 question is: What will it take to put Levi's back on its throne? Other than fire-bombing rival jean companies, the answer may be to wait. Buckingham points out that, like Adidas or Pumas, which languished for years and then suddenly become must-haves again in the mid-'90s, Levi's may find itself naturally hot again at some future date.

Judging by the eagerness with which Levi's is scrambling for admittance back into cool-land, I doubt the company is going to wait passively for that to happen. But it had better be careful, because there's nothing less hip than the appearance of trying too hard.

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