I don’t watch much broadcast television, which isn’t to say I don’t watch television shows. But when I do watch broadcast, the commercials always repulse me or move me in surprising ways. A recent example of this are a series of commercials for Levis featuring the poetry of Walt Whitman.
For one thing, it’s a universe in which the ever-present soundtrack is Walt Whitman poetry. This spot uses a wax cylinder recording believed to be audio of Whitman himself reading from his poem “America.” The second spot in the campaign employs a recording of an actor reading Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
Whitman is an involuntary spokes-celebrity here, and perhaps you deem this ad a desecration of all he stood for. I can’t say I blame you. But were you forced to choose a clothing line for our favorite barbaric yawper to rep, you might choose this one. 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. Whitman’s verse allows Levi’s to evoke not only its proud history but a forward-looking present—the pioneering, American mindset that Whitman captured and that Levi’s hopes to embody.
These commercials are transfixing in a way that few are. Directed by Cary Fukunaga (who made the Sundance favorite Sin Nombre and is slated to direct an adaptation of Jane Eyre) and filmed in parts of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, they are beautifully shot, a superb example of commercial art. Will they sell denim to teenagers? I don’t know, but I do know that I would take another look at Levis because of these spots.