The Empire’s New Clothes
July 1st marked the beginning of Levis new campaign “Go Forth” which places a huge emphasis on American Exceptionalism, our fight for independence and manifest destiny. They have invited us to take part in the campaign, the illusion they have created (and make no mistake it is an illusion). They have declared us “generation denim”…
The design is rough (intentionally) with lots of hand written text and it spans the gamut from print to web to video. It follows all the new dictums of branding, touch everyone everywhere. Technically, with few exceptions, the campaign is astonishing. It is visually beautiful, inspirational, and conceptually rich. Levi’s (or more aptly their agency Wieden + Kennedy) has co-opted the voice of Walt Whitman to tell us that we are pioneers (if we wear Levis). The design strikes an emotional chord. It is not an appeal to rationalism, it is an attempt to link an idea of patriotism, American spirit and rebellion with a pair of jeans (which are manufactured in the Northern Mariana Islands and Costa Rica, not America).
This campaign has waded into murkey waters.
Design communicates, that is its primary purpose, it sends a message to an audience. That message can be almost anything and with the ability to communicate in so many ways, in such vivid realism, that message can truly be limitless. To that end there is a responsibility inherent in design to use its power to communicate, influence, and sway opinion for the good of society, or at the very least to do no harm.
Now as a designer I am the last one to say that design should be governed by laws (I would support a design license of some sort). If that happened i think creativity would be hampered greatly. But there is a huge difference between using design to sell a product and using design to sell an idea of a product. Ideas are mutable things, they change, they are influenced by perception of reality instead of reality itself. In an time when we are pushing the limits of reality and virtuality more and more every day, ideas become just as powerful a fact and less concrete.
Therein lies the grey area. Where does the selling of the product end and selling of the idea of the product begin? I have no doubt that Levi’s were worn by a great many of the “pioneers” of America, the people who worked hard, perhaps to make America great, but more likely to make a great life for themselves. So the product, Levi’s denim was a part of that pioneering spirit, but not the inspiration for that spirit. Levis were a tool used by the people, a tool that met a need. They are jeans, plain and simple. They were worn because they were utilitarian, they were tough, rugged, they lasted under the stress and activity of a pioneer’s life, a farmer’s life, a laborer’s life.
Levi’s has flipped the idea of their product on its head, now instead relying on the idea of their product, their brand. They have told us that with these jeans we can become the “New Pioneers”, we can push boundaries, we can explore, we can make an exceptional life. Only, they don’t tell us why and they don’t tell us how. They just sell us an abstract by invoking images of the past. What their campaign doesn’t say is that adoption of an image, a spirit, or a legacy that we have no real knowledge of or connection to (other than what Levi’s is telling us it is), is impossible. Their concept, their entire ad campaign is being taken out of context. They are lying in the strictest sense of the word, but they are allowing the consumer to create their own reality, which without context allows for almost limitless possibility.
At what point does design become a reflection of a reflection, instead of an explanation of a reality? Design should tell a story, an honest one. Allegory, allusion and metaphor are fine, even useful tools, but when they cross the line from reflection of reality to reinvention of reality that is when design becomes propaganda.