Levi's may belt back blues with new karaoke campaign

By Published on .

Marketer: Levi Strauss
Agency: TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco
Ad review rating: Three and a half stars

Watching Levi Strauss and its agencies for the past four years has been like witnessing a drowning. The brand has gasped and thrashed and screamed futilely for attention. Its advertising on at least two continents has been forced and desperate, its hold on iconic status in the pop culture weakening, pitifully, day by day. It seemed like only the death rattle was to follow. But wait. Don't bury this brand yet.

An adorable and arresting new campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco, looks finally to be the means for resuscitation. In fact, let's switch metaphors altogether. What this series of 31 spots shot in a karaoke bar may do is nothing less than re-energize the long-since extinguished cold fusion of cool.

Here's hoping. Ask any teenager whose dad barges into a party in spiked hair and skateboarder baggies; hardly anything is more embarrassing to watch than someone desperately seeking hipness. Recent years have seen Levi's in that pathetic position again and again-here with dysfunctional, dimwitted teenagers on soapboxes, there with a loser antihero on a pointless '71 Impala odyssey, and somewhere in between with soft porn, confessional exhibitionism and quixotic tilts at the fashion windmill.

But now comes the karaoke campaign, as simple as can be. It's just spot after spot of young people performing three goofy songs of yore: "Downtown," of Petula Clark fame; "Karma Chameleon," by the great Boy George and his Culture Club; and "Kung Fu Fighting," by . . . oh, who cares who by. It's just amazing how irresistible it is to watch ordinary kids singing and dancing-usually quite badly-to songs that are themselves so terrible that they have lapped their own intrinsic terribleness and emerged, miraculously, as cool.

Meanwhile, the per--formers are wearing 31 permutations of Levi outfits-straight legs, shorts, 569s, what have you. Now then, permit us to quote ourselves: "They have the whole deal figured out. Fashion advertising is about getting people to stare at the fashion and come away impressed with how cool the fashion is. The formula is obvious, uncomplicated and, for most marketers, completely elusive."

Stare at these ads, the target audience will. It's like live karaoke; you can't help but stare. What's interesting about the above quotation, though, is that it wasn't originally written about Levi's. Quite to the contrary. It was written, more than a year ago, about The Gap. In exactly the way Gap mesmerized viewers with stylized shots of cool people performing cooly, these ads will mesmerize viewers with pointedly unstylized shots of pointedly ordinary people performing ordinarily-to very cool effect.

This campaign, actually-in addition to being the opposite of the ostentatious, self-consciously weird, dysfunction-embracing forced hipness of Levi's recent past-is also very much the anti-Gap. Just as those wonderful music numbers against an all-white background were refreshingly, straightforwardly gorgeous, these ads are refreshingly, straightforwardly naturalistic.

And not the fake naturalism of the breakthrough 501 Blues campaign that seemed so deliciously funky 20 years ago and now makes us wonder how we were so thoroughly sucked in. This stuff is almost entirely unaffected. Maybe the only flaw is that not enough of the performers the agency went with can actually sing or dance. Yes, it's charming when someone goes onstage and goes unabashedly down in flames. But it's equally charming when someone displays a spark.

In any event, the real question is whether this campaign has the spark to reignite Levi's-or, getting back to the original metaphor, whether it can revive the drowning brand. There lies the mystery of fashion: the commodification of "originality." For the answer, we turn to Boy George: "I'm a man without conviction/I'm a man who doesn't know/How to sell a contradiction/You come and go/You come and go."

Copyright November 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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