LEVI'S GIVES STIFF PERFORMANCE AS NEW ANTI-HERO

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Timeless, rugged, virile. For more than a century, Levi Strauss & Co. conquered time to maintain an image of youthful vitality. But lately, thanks to stone washing and heavy competition, the brand has literally and figuratively gone soft.

So out went Foote, Cone & Belding after 68 years and in came TBWA Chiat/Day and Ponce de LeeClow with the fountain of rediscovered youth, a supposed potent prescription to revitalize the brand.

The ads are by Chiat, but the formula is from Pfizer. If the rough-cut spots obtained by Advertising Age are representative of the TV campaign that actually hits the airwaves next month, the miracle medicine turns out to be Viagra.

Yes, presuming that the creative details will change but that the overall theme will not, Levi's is going stiff.

Three of the first five rough-cut spots are about "hard jeans," the traditional, coarse, unsoftened indigo denim that for the past 20 years manufacturers have washed, bleached, treated and generally softened to comfortable flaccidity.

But now -- prompted apparently by a fashion trend that began in Japan, spread through Europe and is now gaining strength here -- Levi's is promoting its heritage of denim rigidity.

"These jeans are not made out of any cotton you've ever seen before," says the deep, sardonic, world-weary voice of Mark Fenske to an image of Levi's jeans, frozen in a seated position. "This cotton's been shut up in a cage and beaten with whips. This cotton comes out hard and mean. On a bad day you could shave with this cotton. And on a good day . . . [here the jeans crash to the floor, making a sound like an anvil being tossed in a pickup truck] this cotton don't have any good days. Levi's hard jeans. Made out of stuff that'd upset regular folks."

This is product as anti-hero. There is nothing onscreen but blue jeans, looking rather menacing and uncomfortable.

Another spot, with mariachi music in the background, shows a flat, stiff pair of Levi's propped up against the wall. In shadow, we see a firing squad rifle taking aim. The jeans are shot, falling flat, like a plywood cutout, onto the dusty courtyard.

"Levi's hard jeans," Fenske says. "Stiff with a vengeance."

In a third spot, the jeans are folded accordionlike, resting on their creases.

"Picture this, man. You're walking along by yourself, dark out, and you trip. You fall off the curb, man. You lose your balance. You go down hard on the knee. But get this, man: The 501 jeans are hard. Man, they're so hard the concrete doesn't even touch you, man. But get this: The jeans scuff your skin. Man, the jeans are so hard, they scuff you. Levi's hard jeans. They're tough on you."

Two of the spots, including one with a well-worn pair of jeans rapidly panting and wagging their hem "at the foot of the bed all night, just in case you need them," focus on other less concrete properties of the jeans, such as familiarity and dependability. But it is apparent that Levi Strauss is betting heavily that hitherto scorned brand attributes -- deep indigo dyeing and coarse fabric -- can be converted to unique brand benefits.

It's an intriguing gamble, growing out of a simple but confounding marketing problem.

Encroachment by such designers as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and the rise in private-label brands, has cut into Levi's market. Not long ago, Levi's were cool and those other alternatives were hopelessly declasse. But sic transit frigus. Coolness is fleeting.

Even FCB, which had tapped the hipness vein for decades, in the end was unable to find anything within the Levi's name to especially commend it in a glut of arriviste competition. It had found itself reduced to chronicling the intermingling adventures of glamorously iconoclastic characters, on the vain hope that their surpassing weirdness would impress the teen-agers and young adults.

It didn't.

But the Viagra campaign probably won't, either.

Levi's is in the paradoxical position of concentrating on its heritage and "authenticity" while simultaneously chasing a transitory fashion trend -- a trend that eschews the very qualities of comfort and style that had evolved over decades. If it succeeds, it will be because the brand is re-established in the minds of the 13-to-24-year-old core market as the jeans-fashion standard-bearer.

If it fails it will be because the advertising and the characteristics it promotes are more than a little unpleasant. Stiffness is all well and good, but it's no substitute for a relationship.

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