Levi's #GoForth ad campaign and the corporate appropriation of creative culture

Perhaps you’ve seen Levi’s new #GoForth ad campaign. One of their most recent commercials features close-ups of their jeans being worn by a number of individuals of a hipster/artsy persuasion, engaging in all manner of hip/artistic activity while clad in Levi’s. The voiceover begins: “This is a pair of Levi’s,” then commences a rapid-fire recitation of a “poem” about youth leadership, delivered in a manner reminiscent of a spoken word performance at a poetry slam. It contains lines like “You’re gonna be famous, you’re gonna be shameless” and “You’re the next living leader of the world/You’re a kid/Holding onto the thread that holds it together”–the “thread,” of course, hinting at the stitching holding together a brand new pair of Levi’s.

Whenever I see this commercial, I find myself repulsed, defensively muting the television for the duration of the ad. I never thought to consider what prompted this reaction until reading Eleanor Heartney’s summary of the commodity critics of postmodern art in her book, Postmodernism. They, like many postmodern artists, were concerned largely with the construction of meaning. This focus was due in part to the increasing prominence of the view–being made popular at the time by poststructural linguists–that signifiers (words) held meaning purely in relation to each other, rather than in relation to any external reality. The commodity critics applied this theory to the concept of individuality, revealing (even celebrating) the ways in which American individuality is in fact little more than a curation of relationships between individual and corporation.

To provide context: This concept works quite well when referring to large groups of people according to stereotype. For example, how would you describe hipsters? I imagined describing a hipster to my 90-year-old grandmother. It sounded something like this: “They wear tight pants and loose tops. They only use Apple products. They listen to indie rock bands and drink at hole-in-the-wall bars.” Each verb indicates consumption, effectively identifying (or at least, characterizing) an entire group of people based on their particular curation of consumerism. The same exercise could be applied to virtually any other people group: office workers, suburban mothers, inner-city high schoolers, athletes, salespeople, etc. Heartney described this reality in mournful tones, noting that even the commodity critics’ celebration of consumerist capitalism was intentionally ironic (43).

While I am not familiar enough with the work of these artists to adequately form an opinion on whether this assessment is accurate, I would contend that it sets up a false dichotomy. Consumerism–much like the gradual undermining of face-to-face communication effected by online social networking–is simply a step in the evolution of culture. To consider it a step backward is to take a unilineal view of cultural evolution, and to assert that the ultimate end of this evolution is something untouched by consumerism. Furthermore, Heartney presupposes that consumerism is inherently evil, and often refers to it as the antagonist in the struggle between individuality and corporate dominance–without ever explaining what she finds so disagreeable about consumerism in the first place.

Levi’s #GoForth commercial is an excellent example of the intersection of individual and corporation, in which the corporation (Levi’s) more or less blatantly proclaims its jeans to be the standard-bearer of creativity, leadership, and individuality. Wear Levi’s, and you’ve staked your claim to “it.” (Exactly what “it” is, I’m not sure–but it’s certainly something good.) Add Levi’s to your curation of relationships, and it will perfectly complement your other inevitably cool qualities–your artistry, your go-getter attitude, your so-perfect-it-could-only-be-in-a-commercial haircut.

In case I’ve been less than clear, I’m far less pessimistic than Heartney is about the dominance of consumerism. After all, I’m co-founding a startup whose entire mission is the enablement of more cost-effective consumption of goods. On the weekends, I work as a freelance graphic designer and web developer, aiming to encourage more people to spend more money on more things by making those things more visually attractive and accessible. My livelihood depends on the maintained existence of consumerism. And that’s no accident; if I shared Heartney’s dismal view of consumerism, I would likely find myself in a different line of work.

So why, then, do I find myself reaching for the remote the instant I hear “This is a pair of Levi’s”? What triggers this reaction? Certainly, annoying or poorly-done ads (I’m looking at you, 5-hour Energy!) prompt the same response, but the Levi’s commercial was neither of those. So what is it? Is the call to action too transparent? That is, does Levi’s offend me by toeing the delicate line between subtlety and overtness vis-à-vis manipulation of its audience? Certainly, someone who responds positively to being told that he is “the next living leader of the world” won’t respond so well to realizing that the compliment was proffered simply to coax him into buying some company’s product. But then, all advertising aims to do just that: it offers the viewer something she wants (a compliment, entertainment, humor, etc.) in exchange for 30 to 60 seconds of her attention. Or, at the very least, it beats the viewer over the head with some piece of information (“5-hour Energy… every day! Every day! Every day!”) so that its message – “Buy this!” – is inescapable.

Perhaps, then, it’s that Levi’s violates the contract between viewer and advertiser, in which the viewer suspends her cynicism every time a commercial is played. We viewers know that we are being manipulated into action when watching a commercial; and we’ve come to accept that, under one condition: that the advertiser does not insult our intelligence. Levi’s, however, fails to acknowledge this basic requirement, blatantly exploiting our perception of cool and forcing us to confront it in such literal terms that we’re made to feel uncomfortable. Advertisers should take note of this interaction, and learn from it one important lesson: that we’ll gladly consent to exploitation as long as you don’t remind us that that’s what we’re doing.