Debra Goldman’s Postscript: Being There

Let’s begin with the obvious: Advertising is a youth-oriented business. Ads thrive on the cutting edge, and it’s the job of young people to supply it. By age 35, a copywriter or art director should either be well on his or her way to a creative director’s berth or be seriously considering a second career.
But it also occurred to me, while watching the latest brand campaign from Levi’s, that perhaps this principle should apply to ad critics, too. It’s not that I don’t get it. I’ve seen Slackers, Clerks and Pulp Fiction, the films whose torpid ‘tude and circular randomness these vampirelike Levi’s spots feed off two or three years after the fact.
I remember the Calvin Klein ads that not so long ago defined the new noncommittal frontier of individualism: “Be good. Be bad. Just be.” And in these ads, I can recognize individuals just being when I see them. And yet the Levi’s spots from FCB San Francisco left me so disoriented and melancholic, I began to worry that I was past it, more an eavesdropper than a critic.
The problem? I’m not good at just being. If I were better at it, I’d probably enjoy these ads’ random acts of coolness. A Kojack-wannabe cabbie careens through the streets in a non-cop chase. Lenny Kravitz freshens his hair in a gas station rest room. A sedan full of stuffed animals speeds down the highway at dusk. A senior citizen buys a condom. A raccoon-eyed Euro buys a hot dog without mustard.
Hidden in this chaos is a secret order; when watched in sequence, you see that the final frame of one ad becomes the opening frame of the next. Of course, no TV viewer sees them in sequence and no mat- ter: When you’re just being, everything unfolds in the eternal now.
The four and a half minutes of film that make up this campaign are a long chain of non sequiturs in which the biggest non sequitur is the logo and the tagline that comes at the ads’ end: “They go on.”
Oh yeah, you think all these cool individuals are “going on” in jeans. This campaign is the latest version of ads made by people who hate advertising for people who hate advertising. Last year, with its musical extravaganza spots, Levi’s offered non-ads as entertainment. This year, it features non-ads as moments of Zen.
Yet for all their studied air of noncontrivance, these ads stink of target marketing. For example, if you know your youth market, you know that contemporary youth respects diversity, a lifestyle attitude that the universalism of jeans is uniquely positioned to exploit. Accordingly, Levi’s shows up in a picturesque, albeit decrepit, urban neighborhood where African American kids earn their bomb pops by knowing Charlie Parker played alto sax. Levi’s clothes old geezers whose individuality is undimmed by the years.
If you think about the geezer segment, however, you realize that the reason these oldsters are so “individual” is that they act exactly like the young: They hang out in clubs, take their fashion cues from Paper and practice safe sex. Now there’s diversity for you.
But hey, you’re not supposed to think about it. Just be, dammit, and you won’t notice the spot’s phoniness. After all, the old people are really there for visual effect, their withered faces the neo-grunge relative of the flaking building facades and rust-bucket cars that pop up elsewhere in the ads.
Yet these spots still make me melancholy. Isn’t it marketing that first pushed young people to the existential edge, where only the thinnest line separates coolness from catatonia?
Now that catatonia is a bona fide sales tool, what alternative is left for young consumers in flight from ads they so famously “hate?” To just not be? Non-ads seem headed for their inevitable conclusion: a blank screen.