Slate.com Article on Whitman’s Levi’s Commercial


What goes around comes around! Slate.com’s Seth Stevenson has a regular column that basically reviews consumer advertisements, primarily commercials. In his newest column he just so happens to review the Levi’s commercials that use Walt’s poems (America and Pioneers! O Pioneers!) that we talked about at the beginning of the semester.

Stevenson generally loves these commercials, saying, “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.”  I think Stevenson makes a great point in channelling Walt, but perhaps it’s a tad misdirected if applied to a pantsmaking corporation?

Stevenson also waxes a bit poetically himself when describing the nuanced ambiance of the commercials: “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.”

He gives the commercials an A, for “astounding aesthetics” but is mindful that, after all, this is a still just a multimillion dollar company trying to sell jeans anyway it can, regardless of what literary monuments it desecrates, er, utilizes.

Readers of the article are much more ambivalent, as the message board is rife with division, with headings like “Our cultural heritage turned from gold to shit” juxtaposing “This ad succeeds where the Chevy ad failed” juxtaposing “does the average levis buyer know who walt whitman is?” and getting downright mean with “Seth Stevenson’s a hack with no taste”.

So  in a way this article does bring up the question of just what Walt’s legacy means to us now. Has the legacy been reduced to a clever but artfully done advertising schematic? Is it only meaningful in some secondary context, i.e. a Levi’s commercial or a Robin Williams’ rant in Dead Poets Society? I mean, I know we as a class can appreciate Walt, but I’m talking as a generation. Does Walt matter?

I contend that Walt is a difficult read today, where EVERYTHING is compartmentalized. Politics, religion, diseases (PLEASE do not get me started on the swine flu), diet, sexual orientation. We’re judged not by our quality as a human, but the various tags and demographics that are spit out like tickertape at a deli. “Hi, I am Chris. I am a straight, white male who enjoys eating steak, is politically apathetic, atheist, and Irish. True, there is a lot more to me, but in this day and age of 3 minute pop songs and 30 second commercial spots, I doubt you have the attention span to care about the rest. But hey! At least Bud Light and McDonald’s have spent millions and millions on demographic-focused marketing to fill in the blanks of my identity and personality for me!”  O! How Walt would think of us now!

Walt transcended categorization. His enigmatic contradictions are downright baffling at times, but show the convergent and divergent nature of humans. Biologically, what, there’s a 0.00001 difference between every single person? We all have lungs, legs, elbows, fibulas, A COCCYX!  But that fraction tends to make all the difference. Walt understood the perpetual flow of ideologies that inundate us, and tried to reconcile them all. There may be no right or wrong, it just always depends on who you ask.

Are we still talking about pants?

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Tuesday, October 27th, 2009
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3 Comments to “Slate.com Article on Whitman’s Levi’s Commercial”

You make good points. I like the energy in your writing.

November 3rd, 2009

First of all, I wanted to thank you for posting this article; I’m working with the “Go Forth” campaign in another class of mine at UMW as well, and I love it when my courses tend to intermix.
I think that Whitman’s stance in the world is still just as important today-it’s more of a matter of rediscovering him, for some individuals. In the 1800s, one was just as categorized as one is today-maybe there weren’t as many options, but I’d still very much have been stuck in the box of “Female -unmarried-Italian-Roman Catholic.” Perhaps that was the reason why Whitman attempted to transcend categories, so that he could qualify for everyone. As the “American-poet,” Whitman tried to be the do-all, feel-all, be-all, and in that way, everyone could relate to him, no matter what box or profession they fit into. He empathized with everyone, or at least attempted to. I think that’s still possible today; I too looked around on the message boards, and I was thrilled to find that people had looked up Whitman’s poetry, particularly those who had never really hard of him. One woman even lined out sections of “O Pioneers” that she found she could relate to (she said that they’d given her a “pang”), and in that way connected with him. So, maybe Walt wouldn’t have appreciated his poetry being used for others’ gain, but I think that the distribution en-masse, and the chance for all of America to connect with the American poet would have meant something to him all the same.

November 2nd, 2009

did he really transcend categorization, or did he just outrun it until later generations could fit him into one? I like your digression about compartmentalization and demographics – it is kind of interesting to wonder what Walt Whitman would do if he could see what the world turned into. I think he’d have a panic attack, get a prescription to xanax, buy a blackberry and twitter insanely long tweets, and maybe drop an album or two with JayZ

October 28th, 2009
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