The Levi's ad using Walt Whitman's poem "America" repositions Levis within their target-- audience, as a hip company making cool jeans because they're using a poet to 'empower' America's youth. Here's to empowerment, I think?

It's a 60-second spot that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Whitman reciting the poem, black & white footage, jittery camera-work, and synthed-operatic soundtrack to create a manifesto-themed gauntlet thrown at America's youth with the phrase "Go Forth" emblazoned as a nicely designed logo on a flapping banner at the end. The spot is basically a poetry video, using beautifully filmed images of the disenfranchised reflecting the poem's tone without literal interpretation, but as soon as the logo appears, I feel sort of duped. And here's where I get lost, because for an ad at least it's trying to say something, right...but why do I feel poetry getting re-appropriated once again, right...but how great to have poetry on television, right? ("Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity" a nugget from T.S. Eliot, which leads to my mommie dearest moment, slapped left and's a poem—an ad—a poem—an ad—a pair of jeans...sob sob).

Selling religion and seeking converts — advertising is all about creating a world for the brand. A belief system with a personality to attract the right demographic. The followers whose lives will be affirmed if they drink the leader's lemonade. How different is Walt Whitman from Joe Camel now? If I saw a poem entitled 'My Nose My Self' written by one, Joe Camel, in an anthology of Amercian rebels...I'd be curious, but I couldn't get past that name. A brand-world atheist has no brand loyalty. When you buy a pair of Levi's, you are changing your pants, not the world. But when you go on the campaign's website, you feel change is in the air (how timely, eh) because you can leave your own thoughts in the infinite declaration casting off a poem in a bottle, hoping it reaches shore. But how cool to have a forum to leave your thoughts for the world, but isn't that what Twitter's for? And then there's a giveaway that uses a scratchy-voiced response to Whitman as a call to action to find buried treasure. Which is better than their previous Spike Jonze-directed spot, but not as original as this Michel Gondry-directed spot.

At least both of those make no bones about being ads, and are still filmic. The Go Forth campaign has a patina of self-seriousness in its, "getting a platform to sound out," ...very Rebel Without A Cause. Expertly designed in a massive campaign around a unifying theme: to be heard and seen, not even understood, just acknowledged so that you may go forth and discover your voice. Core values in America's heartland of equal chances, right? To re-imagine America as a teen. To use language in the reinvention of American youth that reflects each generation's media-drenched libido. Giving us an implied retro-hooligan under the layers of a smoothed-over-DIY-aesthetic is what obscures the poem that tries to mix rebellion with business.

And this is how you talk to an impressionable, unformed consumer from across class, gender and racial territories. You reach for a bottom line; rebellion. You jump on the raging hormones that scream: I want to be different. And how do you propose different to an indifferent youth in an over-saturated America? By using that common difference: America. Let's make it cool to be an American rebel by showing one that won't offend the parents who have the cash. Make America the brand and give her a makeover for the kids. Like a radio hit, give the vocals a processed sound using static noise effects (scratchy wax cylinder) which is very noise-core. (Here you go, make your own noise cocktail, hit the loop button and play a few of these at the same time for your own brand-world jingle.)

Jeez, this post sounds bitter...don't mean to...just question how far poetry has to adapt to be appreciated by the general public. When I see a corporate entity put such an effort, it really is a victory. So then is my actual trouble with today's smoothed-over youth? Or with advertising's pliable fingering?

One last thing; Whitman's reading here is more rebellious than anything else in the spot. More power to Daddy Walt!

Originally Published: November 1st, 2009

A self-proclaimed “lingualisualist” rooted in the languages of sight and sound, Edwin Torres was born in the Bronx and is a longtime resident of New York City. He is a poet whose highly acclaimed performances and live shows combine vocal and physical improvisation and theater. He is the author of...

  1. November 2, 2009
     Francisco Aragón

    I actually saw the spot last night at the E Street Cinema in DC, and remember thinking that it "sounded" like Whitman without knowing for sure it was Whitman. I quite enjoyed the way word and image meshed. But yes, the LEVI logo at the end seemed an afterthought. A "poetry video" is exactly what it was, and I did enjoy the texture of the voice uttering the words; there was an urgency to it that I liked. Was it really a recording of Whitman's voice? Wow.

  2. November 2, 2009
     Francisco Aragón

    Actually, I spoke too soon: the spot I saw was this one:\r\r


  3. November 2, 2009
     Joelle Biele

    In Huntington, Long Island, there's the Walt Whitman Mall, across the street from his birthplace. Saks, Bloomingdale's, etc. On the walls outside, they've painted large green leaves using the words to "Leaves of Grass"-- You can see an image of the mall here--the leaves are very faint:

  4. November 2, 2009

    a brilliant self-promotor like walt whitman is perfect for an ad campaign.\r


  5. November 2, 2009
     Edwin Torres

    Ah yes, and I went to Walt Whitman Junior High in the Bronx.

  6. November 2, 2009
     Edwin Torres

    Probably, and I'm sure any poem can be placed in context to any product as long as its designed to hit the right notes. I am glad this poem is out there, simply opening more doors for what language does.

  7. November 3, 2009
     Michael Gushue

    Well, I am so *not* the target demographic for the ad. I don't think Levi's even makes a boot cut that accomodates my girth. But, I enjoyed the visual/sound mix. And then I felt I was being flattered (ads are supposed to, yes?), and then kind of nauseated by my own narcissism in being flattered. Could it better that poetry be wildly unpopular than be sucked into this kind of maw? Would I be happy if the ad led to one person picking up some Whitman and reading it? Yes.

  8. November 4, 2009
     Erin Vaughan

    I have to disagree with what was said above. Of course the music and Walt Whitman's recitation were great. But the imagery? Meh. It looked like a model's interpretation of what Walt Whitman's poetry is. I get that its a jeans ad and they had to show beautiful people wearing the jeans to create the illusion that you, too, could live in this world. And, being young, and knowing the challenges the world is about to face, it does resonate with me in that way. But it's still the old dope: making the audience feel as though they are being edgy by consuming and that there is something significant about brand identification. That's not pioneering, it's tired.

  9. November 4, 2009
     Don Share

    It seems quite plausible that Whitman may have worn Levis, as they were around in his time; anybody know for sure? Sometimes I picture him in denim, sometimes in broadcloth.

  10. November 4, 2009

    why is consuming bad

  11. November 4, 2009
     Don Share

    Consumption killed Keats! (Sorry, couldn't help it.)

  12. November 4, 2009
     Edwin Torres

    I didn't mention this, but I work in advertising as an art director, been doing that for many years. Which fuels my views against appropriating art for consumerism...especially poetry. (It also fuels a lot of pseudo-political-identity stances, but that's another post). So my ambivalence about Whitman as a pitch-man is tempered by the fact that yes, someone may actually discover his work. \r

    The other side of this is to claim something as edgy and life-changing for a mainstream audience when that mainstream is looking for direction (or just to buy some pants)...hence my anti-religion jump. Consuming itself isn't bad, it's just a drag when it's cloaked in a psuedo-belief system. Making rebellion slick by using a cool ad geared for a video generation glosses over true creativity. \r

    Here's a link to Ben Friedlander's blog: ...he went on a great tangent which gets deeper than my stone skip here. \r

    But I wonder if Vallejo wore Levis?

  13. November 5, 2009
     Teri G.

    Why is consuming bad? Why is a Whitman Levi's ad wrong? Because Whitman was about the real freedom of choice and ads are about false choices between nothing and less than nothing. Go forth--but not too far! Whitman went forth. We can't even imagine. Defend the ad and consumer society and this late late capitalist empire all you want but you know this is a raw deal, to be the caretaker of your little life dedicated to nothing beyond empty pleasures and pointless longevity. Go forth, America. All the way to the nursing home!

  14. November 5, 2009

    Weren't ads run for Leaves of Grass? And didn't Whitman even write up reviews his own reviews for it? Talk about false choice . . . \r

    (The ad:\r )

  15. November 6, 2009

    you don't consume anything? what, you don't wear clothes? you don't eat? you don't buy books?

  16. November 6, 2009
     Teri G.

    I shop for images all the time.\r\r

    Consume them right up.

  17. November 7, 2009

    Edward Torres's immediately preceding post highlights a curious point. Poets and MFA types have been making hay on Madison Ave for years, at least since Hart Crane. And Disneyworld, at least in the nineties, has been a godsend for MFAs, what with its professional class called imaginators. I'll bet a dollar on a donut the creator of the offending advertisement is a poet. Certainly has to be a poetry reader, right?, of at least one poem.\r

    Oh hell. We all end up dancing with the devil. No way around it, especially if you are a wage earner. Poets are no different, not even Walt Whitman. Anyway, objectifying Whitman offends me far less than the advertising world's pervasive practice of objectifying women.\r