For a few years now, the Levi Strauss brand has had terrible problems. For whatever reason, the jeans once effortlessly synonymous with cool-yet-practical individuality became abruptly passé to a new generation of denim consumers--a problem compounded by floundering ad campaigns. The firm's latest marketing gambit, via ad firm TBWA/Chiat/Day, revolves around the tagline "Make Them Your Own," and its centerpiece is a series of ads directed by Spike Jonze. The spots are set up to seem as though you are looking from behind a mirror into a store dressing room at a people trying on Levi's. The flagship commercial is a quick-cut series of a dozen or more such folks; the other spots are extended takes of individuals from the first ad. For instance: a dancing guy in a sleeveless V-neck sweater; a peculiar guy who looks a little like Joaquin Phoenix, or at least like his character in To Die For; and a young fellow who is a little more tentative about his look.
The Ads: In each spot, an identical discoish tune meanders in the background as you watch these supposed jeans customers, each of whom is trim and good looking--though not so good-looking that they come off as a bunch of models. The camera is static and distant, and the production values intentionally low. The first ad begins with a redhaired girl checking the rear view, as it were, but it gets less predictable after that. Various people execute little dance moves, some more elaborate than others. There's a nice variation to their skill level, and something about the guy in the jersey working a quick nose-scratch into his routine adds a certain verisimilitude. Another man does some lunging motions. Another examines his look with one fist raised. Another flails his arms. Another leans back and throws his stomach forward. Another flips his hair around. Finally the red Levi's tab appears, with the words, "Make them your own."
The extended-take spin-off featuring the V-neck guy begins with him engaged in a kind of "Popeye the Sailor Man" dance, before lifting his shirt to adjust his boxer visibility and cinch up the crotch. Finally he lets the shirt drop again for a look at himself, thoroughly admiring the results. Next: The To Die For kid is wearing two T-shirts, one of which he prefers to have rolled up above the stomach, so the undershirt can be seen. He checks his fly, pivots, shimmies, twirls, and in another excellent touch, splays his right hand in some sort of absurd dance floor affectation. Finally, we have a young guy in a plaid shirt, who does a sort of shy little dance move, tries the look of rolling his one pant leg up the calf, then thinks better of it. He ends, hands on hips, appearing slightly undecided. Each ends with the same tagline. There are a couple of other spots featuring individuals from the long ad, but you get the idea.
What They're Trying To Say: Individuality is a timeworn theme in advertising, and it's always a bit of a challenge for a mass-produced product. Levi's is trying to build a kind of link to its own rugged individualist past, but to do so in a way that seems new. Maybe more important, the firm is trying to do it in a way that, for once, doesn't seem as forced as so much Levi's advertising has been in recent years. So here we are peeking into a dressing room, and watching "real" people get up close and comfortable with various Levi offerings. Everyone is different; yet the grand uniter is Levi's.
The Grade: I happen to think this campaign is the shrewdest thing Levi's has done in a long time, and I'm giving the spots an A. For one thing, the ads seem to absorb the lesson that if you want to see an interesting variety of fashion creativity, people-watching is your best bet; they remind me a little of my favorite feature in Time Out New York: the photo, in each issue, of some person plucked from the street who explains how he or she assembled that day's wardrobe and what the resulting look is meant to suggest. I haven't actually looked at this in a while because I don't live in New York anymore, but it was always more interesting than an entire issue's worth of languid boys and girls in the latest designer "creations" in Vogue. Anyway, whoever cast these Levi's ads came up with a great selection of people who are easier to imagine walking along Houston Street than along a fashion runway. Plus, they're doing something that everyone can identify with--that happens to put the product center stage. While the people are attractive, your attention is drawn to the jeans, not because of pushy close-ups, but because their attention is on the jeans. Attempts at "real"-ness often fall well short of the mark, but the static camera, the variety of subjects, and the apparent unselfconsciousness of each one makes the ads feel revealing without being overly pervy. For the first time in a while, Levi's seems to have some ads that actually work.