Multiple uploads of this ad may be found on YouTube, but this one gives the complete credits. Most significant of course is the fact that they used what is believed to be the poet’s own voice, from an 1888 wax recording. The iconic American composer Charles Ives was also sampled in the soundtrack. The Portland, Oregon-based firm Wieden + Kennedy created the ad, with Cary Fukunaga as the director.
The second Whitman ad in Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign, also from W+K, was directed by M Blash.
These ads, especially the first, have received probably more critical attention than any other videopoems to date. Indeed, for some of the commenters — and no doubt for the vast majority of television viewers — these seem to have been their first exposure to the genre. “I’d always wondered what it would look like if stylish music videos were set to classic poetry,” wrote Seth Stevenson in Slate. He found “America” worthy of critical analysis as a film:
That scratchy Whitman recording also sets a mood of vague disquiet. Paired with the music behind it and the startling crack of sudden fireworks, that raspy, distant voice sounds rather ominous. Where the “Live Unbuttoned” ads were about carefree self-expression, this “Go Forth” spot is about squalor and anxiety.
Director Cary Fukunaga (who made the Sundance favorite Sin Nombre and is slated to direct an adaptation of Jane Eyre) filmed much of the ad in Katrina-ravaged sections of New Orleans. The people wearing Levi’s in the spot do not sport sparkling, coordinated outfits as their counterparts did in the previous campaign. They are often barefoot, shirtless, and sweaty, and their jeans look dirty and lived-in.
In terms of its sounds and images, this is without doubt the most arresting ad I’ve seen all year. It is expertly crafted and beautifully shot. The sound editing is superb, punctuating Whitman’s chant with those tense fireworks explosions. As a whole, it is so jarring and unexpected that I sit up and watch when it comes on—even after several viewings.
Stevenson acknowledged the discomfort many of us might feel at Whitman being pressed into service as a spokesman for a brand, but he felt overall it was a pretty good fit:
Levi’s is the rare American brand that was actually around when Whitman was alive. And there’s logic to this match between a quintessentially American poet and a quintessentially American product.
In Entertainment Weekly, Thom Geir expressed somewhat stronger discomfort with the ad campaign’s use of Whitman. “I can’t help finding the whole concept a little creepy and unsettling,” he wrote. “But I suspect that as a gay, urban-dwelling sensualist, he might have been pleased to associate himself with a stylishly shot film featuring lithe models in tight clothing.”
Grant McCracken, an anthropologist specializing in American consumer culture, had nothing but praise for the campaign, and went so far as to suggest that advertising has pretty much replaced poetry at the center of our culture anyway — a point I’ve been known to make myself on occasion.
But there is another deeper reason why Whitman ought to appear in an American ad. Advertising has taken up what Whitman thought was the poet’s job. All those grim protests from Mad Men notwithstanding, W+K and other agencies are now active inventors of American culture in a way very few poets can claim to be. As Whitman said in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”
Haunted by the fashionable cant of the Frankfurt school, we are uncomfortable that Levi’s should make use of Whitman. But this is wrong. I think it is thrilling to see these meanings circulating in our culture, passing from the poem through the advertising to the jeans, both resonating with and for the American experiment. It is especially thrilling to hear Whitman’s voice return to us from the 19th century, the muse himself made legion. Whatever else it is, W+K’s work is successful homage. And America is usually too much a creation of Walt Whitman to pause and give him his due.
By contrast, Stephen C. Webster at True/Slant called the “America” spot “The Most Offensive Commercial Ever Produced.”
In 2004, Levi Strauss & Co. shut down its last factories in America. This strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich nation was no longer suited to the production of denim wear. No, instead, what was once an American institution and indeed a symbol of our culture was split asunder and divided among 50 other nations, each thrilled to have the pleasure of producing blue jeans.
After 150 years, the last gasp of Levi Strauss & Co. in the United States was the shuttering of two production facilities in San Antonio, Texas, leaving over 800 of those capable and rich American workers with nothing.
Walt Whitman stood adamant in his opposition to slavery. He was even a delegate to the Free Soil Party, a short-lived American political movement that sought to enforce the idea that anyone living on free soil, American soil, would be free indeed.
And here, today, his timeless voice is used to sell denim produced by the impoverished people of wherever, toiling as they may in shops known for their sweat.
In 2002, the U.S. Fair Labor Association found that Levi’s, along with Nike, Reebok and others, were in violation of fair labor practices at factories they contract through.
In just one example, the labor association found that a factory in Mexico (PDF link) which manufactures Levi’s jeans had neglected to explain to its employees that overtime work is voluntary. Some employees told the association’s inspectors that they were under the impression that overtime was mandatory. The factory was further found to be in violation of Mexican labor laws for neglecting overtime wage calculation.
Currently, in a Google Video search of “Walt Whitman,” the top result is the PBS biography, part of its American Experience series. And despite Grant McCracken’s bizarre cheerleading for corporatism, I suspect nothing but another unbranded film or videopoem will ever displace it, because those most likely to link to and share a Walt Whitman poem are unlikely to be more than momentarily diverted by a carny’s protestations of authenticity.