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Walt Whitman and the Levi’s Ad Campaign: A Provocation, A Challenge, and An Invitation

This is the first in a series of posts on The Vault, a new conversational space in the Looking for Whitman project that is devoted to creating public conversations about Walt Whitman and his work.

In a recent post on his blog, Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken writes about the Levi’s “Go Forth” advertising campaign that uses a wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman’s voice as narrative and inspiration. McCracken’s initial reactions to the ad — that its use of Whitman was both “presumptuous” and “a little breathtaking” — is quickly superseded by admiration for the ways in which Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising firm behind the ad, has drawn neat and plausible parallels between the brand history of Levi’s and Whitman’s own democratic, populist poetry of the self.

McCracken’s discussion of the ads reaches a far more interesting point, however, when he winds up making the provocative (and possibly heretical) claim that advertising now serves the kinds of cultural functions once served by poetry. He writes:

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.

america Although this point might seem unsavory to many devotees of Whitman’s poetry, scholars of Whitman’s work (including our own Brady Earnhart) have long noted the resonances between Whitman’s poetry and the culture of advertising in America.

In Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (2006), for instance, David Haven Blake draws parallels between Whitman’s poetry and the “promotional tenor of Whitman’s evangelism” on behalf of that poetry (131). Blake seems to agree with McCracken that there is not as much distance as we might assume between the work of Whitman and the work of a Levi’s advertising campaign:

Whitman redefines the poet’s relationship to the reader in much the same way that early advertisers invented a relation between consumers and products. . . . What gave advertising such a strong position in antebellum culture is that it began to define its audience as subjects who occupied a unique position in regard to it. People were no longer pedestrians or readers; they were spectators, consumers, witnesses, and bodies in need of healing. Advertising offered individuals a public image of themselves, a commercial vision of their vibrant health and personality. . . . As a newly emergent discourse, antebellum advertising appealed to democratic ideals, positing the historical person against the visionary self, the individual transfigured with perfect body and blood. As Berger notes, publicity’s “essential application is not to reality but to daydreams.”

With its roots in patent medicine advertising, Whitman’s publicity anticipates the commercial claims of a media-saturated age. An endless variety of products echo the poet’s promise to uncover our true sense of self and to lead us consumers to a deeper, more satisfying experience. Consuming Leaves of Grass will guarantee self-fulfillment, independence, and the kind of charismatic individuality that will make us the center of every crowd. . . . However superficially, the makers of Toyota cars, Budweiser beer, and Special K cereal all seem to agree with the author of Leaves of Grass that what they offer will result in our deeper happiness and newly discovered harmonious relation to the world. (130-131)

Both McCracken and Blake seem to suggest that not only might the logics of advertising, spectacle, and consumption lie near the heart of Whitman’s poetry, but also that, as McCracken puts it, advertisers themselves might be the true modern heirs to Whitman’s poetic project.

As classes involved in a semester-long study of Whitman’s work that is taking place during a time when Whitman’s voice is ringing out from television sets across the nation during commercial breaks between innings of World Series games, it’s our duty to add critical and scholarly perspectives to the growing debate over these ads. I invite you take up that challenge and to continue this conversation in the comment section of this post. If you decide to respond by writing a post on your own blog, please let us know about your blog post in the comments.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • To what extent does the Levi’s campaign celebrate, confuse, or distort Whitman’s poetic project?
  • What was your own reaction to the “Go Forth” ads?
  • In what ways do themes of consumption, advertising, and promotion show up in Whitman’s work?
  • Do you buy McCracken’s claim that advertisers now play the cultural roles that poets played in earlier eras?

Any other analysis of the ads themselves or of Whitman’s possible relation to them would be welcome.


Works Cited:

Blake, David Haven. Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

McCracken, Grant. “Walt Whitman and the Levi’s ad.” This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics (2009). n. pag. Web. 11 November 2009.


Additional Resources:

Levi’s ads on YouTube: Go Forth. O Pioneers!.

Wieden + Kennedy page on the Go Forth campaign

Brady Earnhart. The Good Gray Poet and the Quaker Oats Man: Speaker as Spokescharacter in Leaves of Grass

Stephen J. Gertz. I Sing the Blue Jeans Electric: Walt Whitman for Levi’s

Christine Huang, Does Levi’s Understand Today’s America? Huffington Post.

Rick Liebling, Levi’s Goes Forth. Finally.. Eyecube.


Image Source: Screen capture from the “Go Forth” America video

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