LEVI'S 501 DUMPS THE BLUES FOR THE AGE OF REASONS

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The most memorable Levi's 501 campaigns were based on the blues. The new one, from Foote, Cone Belding, San Francisco, is more like punk rock. Not necessarily because of the sound track, but in the sense that a) it was probably a bad idea to begin with, b) some of it is genuinely dreadful, yet c) somehow the best elements redeem the whole enterprise.

The first Levi's work since the passing of stylistic giant Mike Koelker, this 501 campaign eschews the moody textures, bluesy rhythms and preternatural hipness of the landmark Levi's advertising. Instead it ostensibly strives to convey brand benefits, by archly dramatizing the 501 reasons young people should be wearing original, button-fly blue jeans.

So there's the main problem: The premise is just the latest less-amusing knockoff of the David Letterman Top 10 list, a gag that is getting a little tired even in its natural habitat and exhausted everywhere else. The print and outdoor 501 campaigns are nakedly in Letterman's debt, with at least adolescently amusing iterations (No. 061 "Ironing sucks" and No. 002 "That's a dangerous place to put a zipper") vastly outnumbered by the lame, tedious and adolescently unamusing ones. (No. 013 "64% of female sexual fantasies include them.").

Happily, though, the derivative toptenishness is largely camouflaged in the TV format, which employs long setups to pay off tiny, but often endearing, little jokes. That deliberateness and single-mindedness of each spot is the campaign's charm.

The best of the lot is called "Prague," featuring actor/model/sibling Nick Moss tooling around the city in a forlorn Trabant, the East German ecommunobox famous for balky performance and black exhaust. Moss, the better-fed brother of Kate, does a wonderful job looking both flummoxed and cute before finally emerging from the car wearing an ugly nylon racing jacket and boxer shorts. Why his underwear? Reason No. 007 for owning 501s: "In Prague, you can trade them for a car."

Another fine and modest spot, by Gus Van Sant, director of the wonderful film "Drugstore Cowboy," captures a beat-up Volvo full of teen-age boys on a road trip through the barren West. It's all ambience and murmured snatches of conversation until day becomes night becomes dawn, and one of the kids hikes up his jeans for another leg of the journey. Reason No. 031 "They're even better the second day."

But for each of those understated gems there is an equally overwrought rhinestone cluster, notably an insufferably self-indulgent and derivative spot from director Spike Jonze in which Jonze himself is dragged behind a van by a pair of "Back to the Future"-like hippie sociopaths. Reason No. 041 "If crazed psycho killers are dragging you behind their van at high speed, they probably won't rip." Ha ha ha.

Apart from such obnoxiousness, it may take more than 501 gags to overcome Levi Strauss & Co.'s Problem No. 1: The siphoning off of blue jeans sales by the ultra-baggy look and other teen-age fancies.

All the texture and tradition in the world didn't mean squat-and neither will quasi-rational product benefits-if the target audience persists in parading around like looters of a big-and-tall-men's shop. Those kids listen to punk rock and grunge, and the 501 line ain't got nothin' but the blues.

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