Levi's teen appeal tied to glamorous, risky acts

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Marketer: Levi Strauss & Co.

Advertising Agency: TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif.

Ad Review rating: One Star

Charming people giving fascinating, sometimes lurid glimpses into their private lives. What's not to like?

Something.

There is something essentially disturbing about Levi's undeniably provocative new campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day.

It isn't the strategy, which is uninspired but rational enough. To flesh out the "authenticity" that Levi Strauss Co. has determined to be its indispensable selling proposition, we ourselves would have lovingly documented the manufacturing process to make the creation of each pair of jeans seem like a blessed sacrament. But we have no gripe, per se, with "What's true," which invites real young people to reveal some personal anecdote or fragment of philosophy.

In print, that ranges from a plain-looking girl holding a hand-penned sign that says, searingly, "I want to be happy," to a handsome hipster who has written on his placard: "CONFORMITY breeds mediocrity."

Dissing conformity in a Levi's ad? That's like Hiram Walker sponsoring a temperance rally.

But never mind one bit of banal sloganeering. The other kids' statements are all quite engaging. Indeed, the agency has found genuinely likable, charismatic "real" people--minus all the affectation and staginess that tends to infect this sort of exercise. Witness the cK one freak show from Calvin Klein, or the Virgin Cola campaign, which purports to give real people 30 seconds on a soapbox, but which reeks of phony, scripted "spontaneity."

TBWA clearly was determined to find subjects whom their target audience can relate to, because they look exactly like the kids they see in school every day. Advertising's tradition of capturing the audience's imagination with idealized characters of surpassing beauty or accomplishment is thus turned on its ear--which, to the degree that it replaces artifice with reality, is all to the good.

The problem is the particular realities the agency initially chose.

One kid speaks of early morning surfing that makes him late for school. Another, who plays in a band, talks about hooking up with two groupies in a menage a trois. Another is an irresistibly indifferent bar DJ who, when bored, intentionally plays bad songs to drive patrons away. Two best girlfriends reveal their hideous, allegedly "Tibetan friendship" tattoos covering their abdomens.

Then there's Dustin, a lovably annoying kid with a Ramses beard and Big Boy hairdo, talking about how his dad broached neighbors' complaints about Dustin's loud stereo. Dad says these small-minded people think he's a gay drug user.

"And I'm like, `Dad, they don't know I'm gay.' He's like,WHAT DID YOU SAY?!' I'm like, `I mean, they don't know I do drugs.' And then I'm like, `I meannnnnn. . . .' "

Now there's a first, a national advertiser cheerfully sympathizing with teen-age drug use. And there's the "something" that indicts this campaign: naked moral abdication.

In the name of relating to teen-agers and setting itself apart from adult authority, Levi Strauss is glamorizing a checklist of disturbing self-destructive behaviors.

Yes, rationalize as they may the importance of authenticity and relevance, the fact is that putting these kids on national TV is ipso facto glamorization--glamorization of illegal drugs, tardiness, body mutilation and reckless bar pickups in the age of AIDS.

In other words: cynically pandering to kids' worst impulses.

What's true is one thing. What's right is entirely another.

Copyright December 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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