Sunday, November 15, 2009

"This Country Was Not Built By Men in Suits." (So Say the Men in Suits)

I've been fascinated recently by the obvious change in tone of many television commercials. We're in an economic downturn, in case you hadn't heard, and so many of the major ad-men seem to have been forced to acquiesce to the hard fact of hard times. There's a lot more emphasis on product "affordability," a lot more recognition of the importance of financial "responsibility," a lot more deference to the reality that consumers' lives may not be all about "consuming." It must be really hard to sell, sell, sell these days without apprearing grossly insensitive to the hardships of Jane and Joe Mainstreet, but no ad-man worth his salt is going to go down with the ship. The challenge is to find a way to make buying "good" again... and there's no better way to do that than to make buying "American" again. What's more quintessentially American than consumerism?

Why, blue jeans, of course.

You've probably all seen this new commercial for Levi's jeans, which features a voiceover by poet Walt Whitman reading from his work, "America (Go Forth)" :

I was really torn about whether or not to like this ad when I first saw it. It's beautifully shot, and the scratchy, wax-cylinder voiceover by Whitman practically sings itself "authentic." After a little research, I discovered it was directed by Cary Fukunaga, who filmed the spot in New Orleans. The opening shot, which features a blinking neon "America" sign half-submerged in black water, is an obvious homage to New Orleans, and provocatively sets the mise en scene squarely in the center of that "other" America. The forgotten, world-worn, disenfranchised, rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet America. And what is the message to this America? Whitman's words: "Go forth." This is the place of "equal daughters, equal sons," all hard-scrabbled, all blood and sweat and love, all irrepressible, all underdogs, all "alike endear'd." Go forth.

Go forth and buy jeans, that is. Maybe I'm too cynical, maybe a bit too attached to an utterly unrealizable notion of "authenticity," but there's a part of me that can't help but cringe at the subtle exploitation of Whitman, of New Orleans, of the blood and sweat and love of that "other" America. Even still, after seeing this commercial over and over again, I was slowly able to let go of that cynicism. So what if it's an ad? It's aesthetic excellence, I told myself. And it says something I believe.

Then, there came this second iteration of the Whitman/Levi's combo, based on Whitman's poem "O Pioneers! O Pioneers!" :

I wish I could say that the reason I don't like this second installment is because it is somehow unfaithful to Whitman himself... but, of course, the Whitman of "America (Go Forth)" is also the Whitman of "Prayer of Columbus" and "Song of the Broad-Axe." Whitman was both an incorrigible self-promoter, singing songs of himself, and an almost-unrivalled seer of communal possiblity, singing songs of tout autre. He was a man who pushed the boundaries of sexual convention while at the same time championing the most conventional of spiritual virtues (faith, hope, love). He was a man of contradictions, each beautiful and maddening and strange, just like the American pioneers that he charges with going forth.

So, I blame Levi's for what I see as the failure of their second ad, which is too Lord of the Flies, too pugilistic, even militaristic, too Occidental, too in thrall with victory, with closing the deal. It's too much "Star Spangled Banner" and too little "America the Beautiful." It's too much an America built by people in blue jeans, but who are themselves puppeteered by men in suits. It's too much an advertisement for a promise on which it likely cannot make good, rather than an advertisement for an open (but not empty) promise of something unanticipatable, unpredictable, something truly hopeful and, thus, truly democratic. Something to come.

I prefer the America that safeguards the promise of going forth, of pioneering, without requiring the pretense of being a pioneer.


David Gougelet said...

This commercial return to traditional values of Americana (hard work, humility, determination, etc), as evidenced by the growing trend in "workwear" (denim, boots, etc), which is supposed to resonate with us in the current economic climate, is particularly hollow when one takes into the account the contemporary reality of industrial production: nothing says "Americana" like "Made in China."

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