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275. Can Advertising Be Too Smart? Too Artistic?

It has been heard often in the office of creative directors all over the country as an admonishment towards younger creatives, "You're not artists, you're salesmen." And it's true. Advertising is not art even if it at times dips its toe into those dark artistic waters and even occasionally produces something wonderfully new. Advertising has a job and using artistic lexicon it has a commission to produce work that sells a product or service. So even the artists that work as art directors and writers during the day in order to practice their love outside agency hours, are quite aware of this cold fact. Personally I don't mind being an art director as I enjoy the problem solving that goes along with the role but my preferences in terms of the work I enjoy the most tend to fall between the gray area of commerce and art. And honestly my favorite work may have at least one foot firmly planted in the art world. And I wonder to myself, is this artistic work too high-minded to sell goods? Is it too smart for the mass demographics that every advertiser covets?

While I was back in the states I frequently went to a late movie by myself as a way to unwind. I think on one particular night it was to see Funny People. (Which if you enjoy the same anatomy jokes told over and over and/or you are a 15 year old boy - you'll enjoy it.) During the trailers a spot started to run. It began with an old neon sign that spelled out, "America..." and within two or three seconds—before the spot really got going—the entire theater was giving their full attention. The talking and joking and noise subdued and the spot had everyone's eyes and minds. I have not witnessed this happening before while watching an ad. For the next 60 seconds we listened to a scratchy voice reading a poem about independence, which I recognized halfway through as being part of Walt Whitman's, America. Not a sound could be heard in the place except for the noisy background of an old recording, the narrator's voice, and the downplayed sound effects within the spot itself. I actually saw one of the theater employees stop and watch. It just reached out and grabbed people. The spot was the launch for Levi's Go Forth campaign, created by Wieden & Kennedy (of course.) When it was over, I almost applauded. But the reaction from the rest of the viewers was mixed. I heard an "Oh my" as well as a "THAT was for JEANS?" And the woman in front of me simply shook her head in disbelief. Although obviously attention-getting, the reverb from the spot seemed split down the middle, at least during my impromptu focus group in a small southern town.

Here's the spot:

This was definitely a piece of art, this spot. I later found out that the narrator was no mere voice talent, but Walt Whitman himself from a recording in 1890 by none other than Thomas Edison. All art makes a statement, and this was no different. During a summer of seemingly endless bad news, the message here was that we've come through worse. Because of our American spirit of determination, independence, and maybe even hardheadedness we'd come through this with heads held high. Honestly, I love the spot. It's beautifully art directed, shot and edited. The writing is hard to argue with, obviously. And it's the message from Levi's that has gotten lost over the years. And it beats the pants off of the work from Wrangler that won in Cannes last year. Not sure how this would resonate on an international stage, but over here these spots should do well - again, in terms of artistic and creative merit. They were directed by Cary Fukunaga (who shot Sin Nombre) and located somewhat poetically in the parts of New Orleans hit the hardest by Katrina. But the question in my mind - is this spot, and other work of similar ilk - simply too artistic to sell?

A print sample within the campaign:

A few things to keep in mind, is that this launch spot does not exist in a vacuum—it is a part of a larger campaign of many moving and unequal pieces. There are other spots. There is the excellent, The G.O. IV Fortune website which features a sort of scavenger hunt, as well as the New Americans project site which fits nicely with the rest. And of course the stores, the product itself and other factors will play into the final judgment of whether or not this campaign works. Considering all of that, it does feel like advertising done by artists and I wonder about my theater focus group. Is the average American consumer too disinterested in things like classic literature for a campaign like this to resonate? Will most people miss the fact that it's narrated by Whitman himself and is one of the oldest remaining voice recordings still around - and if so, does that even matter? Is there enough normal fashion clues (the endless stripping off of one's clothes seen in most fashion work for instance) for it to work on a much lower level than maybe even the creators envisioned? Is the tagline as meaningful for those who don't recognize that it comes from a recruitment poster for an expedition to the South Pole in the early 1900's? Barbara Lippert from Adweek reviewed this spot when it first aired—about the time I had went to the movies—and had a nice thought along this line, saying that the work "is visually engaging even for those who don't necessarily want a lesson in the Gilded Age." So obviously she believes that it will work somewhat despite its artistic reaching.

A second spot reading from Whitman's Pioneers:

The reason I have waited so long to post about a campaign that launched last July (besides looking for a new job and moving to Dubai) is that I wanted to see how the audience would respond online. Here are a few comments left on blogs and sites across the great wide open of the internet:
  1. This commercial is ****. What does it have to do with jeans? I refuse to buy their jeans after seeing this garbage commercial.
  2. The voice is scary
  3. Looks more like a political statement than anything else. but they might sell some jeans either way.
  4. Kudos to W+K for once again making inspiring work that motivates us to be better people. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE work that speaks from the heart, and seeks to inspire as well as this Levi's ad does.
  5. I think kids are looking for brands to stand out and do something different. This is quite bold and will get people's attention. the tv spot is like nothing on TV and actually has something to say.
  6. The ad catches and retains your attention when you first see it, if only to figure out what it is actually trying to sell. Once the mystery is solved, it fails in the world of commerce.
This tension between art and commerce is nothing new yet it is always on the forefront of client and agency discussions, or if you work at a conservative agency, it's the discussion between the creatives and the account team - it may never even get to the client. Hard sell (usually less artistic) verses a soft sell (usually more artistic). There is no right answer here, and different people and different agencies fall in different places along this spectrum. But it's my belief that the work that everyone wants to produce, something that will stand out within the culture of a market and not just in the marketplace is represented well by this latest Levi's work. Perhaps this is the perfect spot. Creatively gratifying to produce and yet accessible enough to be commercially successful. If I were presenting this to the client my fear would be that it would go over the heads of the audience, but my hope would be that it would hit their soul. Which makes me sound more like an artist than an art director. And I do hope there is room for both. I hope that challenging people to think will also encourage them to think about what they buy, and hopefully those doing the challenging, will have a product that is the best option. Actually, I think I just wrote my version of the perfect client.

Are there campaigns out there that you think are too artistic for their own good?

The G.O. IV Fortune Video:

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the subject of authenticity. I did a review over a year ago lamenting the American Living line for JC Penney as it has nothing to do with America at all as it is made in China or wherever and shipped here under the guise of patriotism, and I have the same concerns here. The spot would be more meaningful were the main factories for Levi's still in The States, but I have been banging that drum for a long time. It's not that I'm against importing - just importing while communicating dishonest attributes about a product. From that standpoint I do not like this spot. But from a artistic judging sense, I love it. Maybe my favorite work in a long long time. And I believe the team that worked on it at W+K were some younger folks, which makes me happy. I just hope they raise the same concerns about the product - where it's made, by whom and how - that I would. If we're saying America (and nothing is more American than a poem by Walt Whitman recorded by Thomas Edison for goodness sake), then let's make it an honest statement. It's just not the point of this post is all, so forgive me if this seems contradictory. And it does matter from where things come. Have you tried to buy a pair of jeans made in the America that Whitman writes about lately? Good luck. Maybe we need more of that pioneering spirit these days.

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Reader Comments (1)

What kills it for me is the use of a tagline. The turn from art to commerce becomes awkward because then I'm being told to do something - to "go forth." The inherent beauty of art is in how each individual can interpret it in his/her own personal way. The tagline changes it from art to commerce, and when people view it as commerce then their minds start to put up the traditional barriers to advertising. I appreciate that "go forth" is vague, allowing me to determine what that copy means to me personally, but I think that it may be just a bit of overkill after the lush visuals and attention-demanding (if not somewhat creepy) audio. If it had been stripped to just a levi's logo and maybe a website then that freedom of interpretation remains. It's a bold piece of beautiful work - it just ends terribly.
November 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

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