16 Nov 2009 9:55 pm   //   Filed under: No right to be good, Photos, TV commericals

Poetry in advertising

It’s been a so-so year for TV commercials, but this Levi’s ad is insanely great.

The commercial has been playing for months and the first few times I saw it I ignored it, as you probably did. Then after the repetition sunk in, I realized this was something special. “We must march my darlings!,” the ad proclaims. What is this? Turns out it is a Walt Whitman poem called “Pioneers! O Pioneers!

Photographer Ryan McGinley has his fingerprints on the “Go Forth” campaign—he gets credit for print/outdoor executions—and his “look” was obviously translated into motion for the TV component. Sometimes his work is hard to take—celebrations of intoxicated youthful excess make me concerned about the next morning’s hangover. Naked kids cavorting in fields are lovely, but really, it’s lollygagging, and we all have a lot of work to do.

But in this ad, there’s something more. These free young things are mashed up with a call to arms: “Get your weapons ready!,” the poem insists, over thunder, drums and strings. Here is a perfect pairing of words and images. Whitman’s poem grants purpose to the lanky kids in the pictures and erases the guilty pall of wasted time. More incredibly, the pictures give the Whitman poem a new layer of meaning, as if he’s calling not just to rouse soldiers, but to endow outcasts and nonconformists with the dignity of a mission. The music—barely even there—provides just enough glue to bond it together.

Then there’s the matter of the voice reading the poem. What a sound! It turns out to be a vintage recording of Will Geer, whom Wikipedia tells me was an actor and activist who died in 1978. Doesn’t he sound like John F. Kennedy declaring, “We choose to go to the moon!“?

Levi’s ad agency is Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, which should collect an award or two for this work. Even if they don’t, they deserve credit for getting a risky and high-minded ad approved and seen. All in the interest of selling casual apparel. Don Draper would be proud.