American Beauty

BBH’s Levi’s work gets better with a smart Wild West spin

Now in theaters and soon to hit the small screen right in your own home, this Levi’s ad comes from a British agency, a German group creative director and a Swedish directing team, and features a French actor on location near Budapest. The goal of convening this mini-U.N.? Naturally, to reconnect an iconic American brand to its roots in the American West. And strangely enough, it works.

A fast-moving, beautifully produced and clever update on the rodeo arts of the Wild West, the spot evokes The Misfits (Clark Gable is a rugged individualist/ washed-up cowboy) crossed with My Mother the Car (’60s sitcom featuring a man and his controlling, maternal car). Think Marlboro Country on the Volga and you start getting the idea.

We’re in some dusty, far-off, post-industrial place, and an Impala is on the loose. That’s a Chevy Impala, ma’am, or, more likely, an El Camino, built Levi’s tough for the commercial. So that’s two degrees of iconography (American cars/Levi’s pioneer spirit) wrestling with each other. Our 21st-century cowpoke looks awfully cool all duded up in a Levi’s Type 1 jacket and jeans. He sees said unique motorcar blast out of a gate and runs after it. He does some fancy, Roy Rogers-type lassoing and gets ahold of the thing, slipping from roof to windshield and back, then rides it into an arena, where it stops.

Man has triumphed over beast. The dude is now officially the Chevy whisperer. (We have no idea whether the car has a driver.) But the vehicle lurches forward, teasing the conquering rider as he tries to get into what we see is the empty driver’s bucket seat. Eventually the car stops and our roughrider gets in and vrooms off into the sunset. All the while, the tension and pacing is wonderfully underscored by the slashy sounds of “Crazy Beats,” from Blur’s new album.

A second spot, not available at press time, involves a woman on a horse playing chicken with a bullet train, and will break on TV in a few weeks.

Since getting the account, BBH has made some slick and attention-getting Levi’s spots—woman rescues car from chop shop, man rescues French dictionary from car under water. (Come to think of it, the agency has a car fetish.) Those filmlike ads were pretty esoteric: They didn’t mix the cinematic excitement with much of a jeans-type branding message. Perhaps overcompensating, this year’s Super Bowl spot, featuring a futuristic-looking couple walking straight through a herd of bison, combined old and new in a mystical but mystifyingly empty way.

In contrast, there’s a hell of a lot of smart branding in “Car,” but it’s not an obvious hard sell—it’s subtle, entertaining and keeps you guessing right till the end.

Ironically, for years, Levi’s jeans, with their authentic American pedigree, have been a cooler and more prestigious brand in Europe than here. (A great spot from the mid-’90s pointed out that in Prague you could trade a pair of Levi’s 501s for a car.) Perhaps that’s why this reinterpretation of an American classic through the meta-American lens of Europeans seems fresh: “Car” makes serious American references but also manages to be funny and wry.

Ultimately, “Car” is nowhere near as bleak a take on the West as The Misfits. Instead, it’s about a newer reality: roping your own inner El Camino and riding it clear into the sunset.