Dispatches | June 01, 2011

Last Thursday, The Awl posted a brief article musing on the lack of contemporary authors in ads these days, then linked to eight ads from days of yore that featured authors directly or, through the invocation of their work or their personas by others, indirectly endorsing products from credit cards to laundry detergent. Just to give you an idea of the ever-rich offerings of YouTube, a quick search will lead you to a George Plimpton ad for Intellivision, a Stephen King ad for ESPN, and an F. Scott Fitzgerald ad for a Calvin Klein fragrance. There was one pair of ads which I fully expected to but (shockingly) did not see on The Awl’s list:  the Levi’s “Go Forth!” campaign, which uses Walt Whitman (you know, the guy whose 198th birthday would have been yesterday) to stunning effect.


Whitman the year before Leaves of Grass was published for the first time

The first ad features the only known recording of what is thought to be Walt Whitman’s voice reading the first four lines of his poem “America“:

The second ad features lines from “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” read by someone who is not Walt Whitman (actually, I don’t know who the voice belongs to) but is an extraordinary reader:

When these ads first aired in 2009, they got under my skin in mostly a good way. Not only are they masterful ads, but they straddle the border between advertising and art – a border I have become more and more interested in over the last few years. It’s too easy to say that, because something is an ad, it’s dishonest and manipulative and can’t possibly be art because it’s made to sell something. Yes, ads are manipulative, but if the ads embedded above didn’t have that Levi’s stamp at the end, I don’t think there would be a question of whether or not they’re art. And isn’t art manipulative, too? The same rhetorical tools are at work; like ads, art has an argument, a purpose, products – values – it endorses or censures. Great art is always more than an aesthetic event; it wants to change us, to convince us to agree with it, to “buy” what it is implicitly or explicitly arguing. I’m not trying to say that all ads are art or vice versa, but in the “Go Forth!” ads, they operate in similar ways.

Levi’s is selling America, but so was Whitman. Using his poetry for this campaign was marketing brilliance. Whitman’s America, the America he wanted for his time and ours, still holds sway in our nation’s dream of itself. The Bard of Democracy took all that was lofty in the Enlightenment and infused it with passion and earnestness; his vision became our self-definition, and it persists, either as a thing we think we are or wish we were or could be if only we would [fill in the blank here]. The admakers have skillfully picked up on and made use of the ideals informing Whitman’s American romance, like love, youth, freedom, indomitability, courage, equality, and durability. Even as the Great American Jeans are being sold, the Great American Poet is being interpreted and praised – almost worshipped. Our instinct as consumers is to resist the “buy this” message of an ad, but what about the other messages? What if the message is “Love Walt Whitman” or “You are part of something beautiful”?

I know, I know; the medium is the message, and if the medium’s purpose is to get us to spend money however it can, then it’s vital to be wary of the effect something has on us. When Levi’s produces these ads, beautiful and moving though they are, they’re saying, “Our jeans mean this, which means America, which means that you should want to be this and can become it by buying our jeans.” It begins and ends with the selling of jeans, but I’m not so sure that we should dismiss everything about these ads just because they’re ads. Art manipulates, and that doesn’t make art bad, so why does it make advertising bad? Is the answer really as obvious as it seems?

Sara Strong is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri and an editorial assistant at The Missouri Review.