Can advertising be too good?
Long, long ago in the mid- 1980’s, Levi’s 501’s created a moment for me – a fashion
moment, a music moment, an advertising moment. The commercial that did it
wasn’t Launderette, at first, but its lesser known sibling in which a guy takes a bath
to get some shrinkage, while a fan spins and sirens whine outside. I bought the jeans,
discovered Sam Cooke, swallowed gratefully the whole advertising-fuelled emotional
package. So I’ve always had an affection for Levi’s and its advertising, and I wanted
them to find a new success formula because of their great heritage, even though I
hadn’t worn the jeans for years and years.
When I first saw the ‘Go Forth’ campaign, I thought they’d nailed it. It felt like a
brilliant update, a reinvention of the authentic pioneer spirit that would be
completely relevant to modern America, and then to other parts of the world when
it was rolled out a couple of years later. It seemed to have plenty of legs, I read an
article about its benefits to the business, I anticipated the exemplary case study.
But that’s not what happened. Instead Levi’s, a client with a history of long-standing
agency relationships, parted ways with W+K after not all that long. I was surprised,
but there may be very simple reasons for any agency move that aren’t immediately
obvious. But I was even more surprised, when I asked around a bit (and not just
among old gits like myself), that people had such differing views on the campaign.
Some had liked it, like me, and felt that the account must have moved because of
politics, because the campaign wasn’t given much budget, or because the brand had
become so mundane that communications couldn’t save it. But one or two others
had a different view, that the campaign was too dark or that it felt datedand
wouldn’t have relevance to contemporary youth.
When the campaign was launched Bob Garfield reviewed it in Ad Age. In essence he
said that it was ‘too good’, that its message was too powerful and well executed, and
that an ironic and post-modern generation would resist putting such a profound
statement on their bums. It’s an intriguing thought, which challenges a lot of
accepted wisdom. I wouldn’t particularly relish telling a creative director his
campaignwas insufficiently post-modern, but maybe I just need to get some
obnoxiousness training. (‘You call this post-modern? I spit on your fixie, you fullbearded hack!) I guess if Garfield was right, then the fact that Go Forth was a ‘brand’
campaign would exacerbate the problem, unlike the earlier UK work where the
brand was built through ‘product’ advertising.
I’m not really convinced. I still prefer my gut feeling, that the work was powerful but
other factors meant that it lost traction within Levi’s. But a grain of doubt remains.
Not enough to give me sleepless nights, but enough to get me writing this on the
Hammersmith & City line rather than reading mindless drivel about house prices
soaring in the London suburbs. At least some things haven’t changed since the 80’s.
November 2013 for www.adliterate.com