Poetry in Motion

It’s probably safe to say that an ad campaign aimed at the Jackass crowd (males 18-24) has never before quoted the poetry of Walt Whitman so extensively (if at all). So naysayers might be moved to dismiss this raw, exciting — even brainy — new Levi’s work, the first from Wieden + Kennedy, as pretentious.

Of course, “pretentious” is my middle name. So I’ll cop to the fact that reviewing ads for jeans rooted in the gritty, but optimistic (and surprisingly sticky) language and poetry of 19th-century America (when Levi’s got its start in the West) fills me with manic, Ed Grimley-like energy.

Why talk about the rebels of the 1960s (yawn) when you can go back to the 1860s? Old Walt, of course, was a bit crazed himself.  As he said, he sang to the body electric. So the campaign’s use of his groundbreaking free verse in Leaves of Grass, and its suggestion of the American frontier with its pioneers and early industrialists, provides a uniquely rich and authentic atmosphere.

The campaign, which breaks around July 4th, has an online component — at Levi’s/Goforth.com — that lets you “author” and/or edit the Constitution. It’s like American Idol for U.S. history geeks. It turns the foremost text of independence into a kind of informal, fun document, even explaining in one section that things might have gone differently for the Founding Fathers, who “tried to make it work and totally would have been open to counseling if only the King had tried even a little bit.”

The work, which includes two films for in-cinema, TV, online, print and a big outdoor component — including bus shelters and wild postings — is visually engaging even for those who don’t necessarily want a lesson in the Gilded Age. I love the look of the handmade type, which helps give the words an urgent, personal feel. (“All I need is all I got,” for example, which is a coping manifesto for millennials.) The imperfect bendy letters convey a vibrant energy that provides a nice, low-tech balance to all the new-media elements and also gives the disparate pieces an eye-pleasing coherence. (There are also clever hand-drawn “buttons” underneath the online video.) The font, also used in the print and TV work, varies slightly for each execution.

The new tagline, “Go forth,” sounds like a more Biblical version of “Just do it.” It was taken from a recruiting poster that explorer Ernest Shackleton issued seeking crew members for an expedition to the North Pole in the early 1900s. It’s a crusader-ish marching order that covers all the bases, from “Go west, young man,” to “Go forth and multiply” (which gets a bit too Biblical for Levi’s wearers).

The black-and-white “America” spot, launched July 4, is dark and deep. It opens on the word “America” in lit-up letters that literally sink underwater (like all those home mortgages and car loans!). Directed by young American filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, it shows ominous images of running kids and firecrackers popping and illuminating the night. But it also presents a “new” day — and this is where the hard work and good sense of the millennial generation is supposed to kick in. The audio, according to info on the Levi’s site, is “widely believed to be” an original wax recording of Whitman reading four lines of his 1888 poem America. As he recites them, inspiring handwritten words appear on the screen. The unexpected weirdness of the verse, antique voice and the crackling on the track really demand our attention.

The photographer for the print work is Ryan McGinley, “the” hipster artist of the moment, and his work has an almost eerie, kinetic feel to it. He also shot the “We are animals” work for Wrangler in Europe, which just won the print Grand Prix at Cannes, and I’ve got to say that the Levi’s stuff is a bit cheerier, more playful — and less sexy; I think it will probably have less of an impact than the Wrangler photos.

The most successful part of the campaign remains to be created. On the site a section called “The New Americans” asks users to submit videos, images, thoughts and feelings about the U.S. to create a contemporary, interactive portrait of the country. It’s the Levi’s-sponsored answer to the Works Progress Administration, which put writers and artists to work by the thousands during the Depression — and also gave us great new public works of art. The most successful entrants will be eligible for grants of up to $5,000.

So, history comes full circle: President Obama represents our own time of New Progressives after the Bush Gilded Age. And Levi’s, invented for gold miners outside San Francisco, now belongs to global miners of the Internet (which had its own gold rush in San Francisco in the late 1990s).

And to a generation facing one of the worst job outlooks in history, the 5,000 Benjamins will seem pretty intriguing, regardless of whether Whitman speaks to them.