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/ -- 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).

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