Ad Rant: Levi's celebrates America the beautiful...with $238 jeans and a greedy treasure hunt

Would you buy a pair of used-looking Levi's jeans from this man?

I would.

But I draw the line at using a great ad celebrating the pioneer spirit of America, along with Whitman's stirring words, as a springboard for a crass $100,000 treasure hunt.

For the past few months, Levi's has been piggybacking the poetry of Walt Whitman on its "Go Forth" ad campaign, linking its jeans to the can-do, hard-scrabble, exuberant spirit of early America. It even has Walt himself as its pitchman.

You'd think that would be difficult, given that the poet died in 1892. But, like DNA, MP3s live on forever: There is an original, 36-second wax cylinder recording of what is presumed to be Whitman's voice reading four lines from his poem, America. Levi's cleaned up the soundtrack; you can download the scratchy original here.

His voice is as stirring and passionate as any bootstrapper this country ever produced, as he extols the richness of the American people:

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love

Watching this ad gives me chills. The good kind.

The black-and-white visuals of New Orleans under siege are both stark and stirring. The people of all ages in this ad are kinetic, alive. They do backflips, ride horses, dance in the spray of fireworks. They are -- yes! -- strong, strong, ample, fair, enduring ... just as Whitman envisioned.

I don't think he envisioned, though, a treasure hunt sponsored by Levi's, whose contest rules limit the game to anyone 18 or older who resides within the 50 states.

In other words, the people who actually make Levi's jeans, in all their outsourced geography, are not eligible to play.

The ad gives the feeling of indefatigable spirit and grassroots revolution. It ends with a kiss, the ultimate sign of hope. Despite the opening image of a hunk of signage in the shape of the word "America," half-submerged in water, the message is that America is unsinkable. It gives hope that we will rebuild, that our past is our future.

It's a noble sentiment. Somehow, I don't feel the same about treasure hunts.

It's clever to link the words of that most American of poets with a brand that's been around since Whitman was in his 50s. (Maybe he even wore them -- despite what one commenter said on YouTube, that Whitman probably wore Gloria Vanderbilts to Studio 54. Hey, if Whitman's voice could survive, not to mention disco, then who's to say the guy's sartorial choices don't reverberate in some ghostly way around the pop-culture universe?)

I like the ad enough that I'm not going to get all righteous about using Whitman to sell jeans costing up to $238, even though he spent his life poor and evidently required barely any more luxuries than Thoreau over at Walden Pond.

It doesn't even bother me (well, it does, but not enough to march on it) that this ad is about America undaunted, rising from the ashes of hard times; yet, during modern hard times, Levi's gradually laid off thousands of workers and closed its last two American plants in 2003. Levi's now manufactures the majority of its clothing in anyplace BUT America. Naturally, that goes against the spirit and intent of Whitman. Not to mention against the spirit of Levi Strauss, the Bavarian immigrant who patented the process of putting rivets in denim, thus inventing jeans.

All of that's true, but here, for me, is the final straw: Levi's has followed up this lyrical, lovely, hope-inspiring campaign with ... a greed-inspired, insipid treasure hunt. (Yes, the winner of the $100,000 prize also gets to choose a charity that will receive $100,000 as well, but that doesn't mollify me.)

Interestingly, the most expensive pair of jeans that Levi's sells -- the Landmine, $238 -- carries that price tag partly because it recreates the worn, faded, torn look that has become so prized in jeans. The Levi's brand originally took off because its workpants were more durable than other clothing of the period, but you spend more today for the look people back then were trying to avoid: wear and tear.

That has been true for a couple of decades now, but it is particularly symbolic in light of the "Go Forth" ad's queasy subtext, that "true" America is about the kind of work and effort it takes to wear out your jeans, when anyone will tell you that most people would rather pay for "the faded look" than do the good, clean work it takes to weather their own clothes.
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