The Most Offensive Commercial Ever Produced
It has been years since I have offered my hard-earned dollar to the purveyors of cable television. Years.
Last month I came to an agreement with my housemate, that we would have cable television once again. The sounds of Sunday afternoon football, late-night films on HBO and brain-sucking advertising for the cure to what Wanda Sykes so aptly called “broke dick,” would once again echo through my sanctuary.
Ever so briefly, between spates of addiction to C-Span and the History Channel, I began to not mind so much.
That is when I saw the Most Offensive Commercial Ever Produced.
Dear reader, your humble narrator is not easily offended. No, quite the contrary. It is my business to wade through the unrelenting idiocy of American media and politics, sorting out the bits that require damnation and disseminating flakes of truth amid the mire. This is what pays my bills and keeps me sane. It is my passion.
But this one piece of media literally followed me beyond the veil of sleep. For days now, I have not been able to stop shuddering when it crosses my mind. I am not sure whether to weep or become enraged at this duplicitous, penetrating piece of filmed prose. While I could describe it, these things are best digested on one’s own terms.
I apologize for what follows.
The narration you heard in the clip above is purported to be the great poet Walt Whitman himself, carrying his lyrics through time via a wax cylinder recording. The original is kept today by the Whitman Archive, for all to hear and know.
The full poem goes a little something like this …
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
“A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother” … Depicted here, by Levi Strauss & Co., as a flickering sign in black and white, partially submerged and dying in the dusklight.
The ad rolls on, with a flash of a dilapidated neighborhood, then a car seemingly surrounded by protesters, inside an apparently concerned, well-dressed man deadpanning into the camera. “Centre of equal daughters,” Whitman says. “Equal sons.”
Models run through the night as fireworks silently explode. A child does a backflip. The American flag, framed by a power line. A boy jumps a fence.
“Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,” Whitman continues.
By this point in the ad, I am entertaining the thought of destroying this large, black box that sits in my living room and tells me what to think. Oh, where to begin …
In 2004, Levi Strauss & Co. shut down its last factories in America. This strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich nation was no longer suited to the production of denim wear. No, instead, what was once an American institution and indeed a symbol of our culture was split asunder and divided among 50 other nations, each thrilled to have the pleasure of producing blue jeans.
After 150 years, the last gasp of Levi Strauss & Co. in the United States was the shuttering of two production facilities in San Antonio, Texas, leaving over 800 of those capable and rich American workers with nothing.
“Now, Levi-Strauss is a traitor, no better than any of those other one-time bastions of good old Americanism that have sold out American workers in the name of cheap labor,” a Salon blogger wrote at the time. “I’m glad I own as many pairs of Levi’s as I do, and I’m glad they were made to last forever (I still rotate a few pair of 501 and 550s more than 25 years old) — because I won’t be buying another pair. Ever. To hell with you, Levi-Strauss.”
Oh, if only the sickening hypocrisy were the end to the offense struck by this rote polemic on the American condition. If only.
Going out on a limb, I will assume that most avid television viewers are not all too familiar with the life and times of legendary American poet Walt Whitman. For the sake of short attention spans, I shall spare the lecture, save but for the key elements.
For much of his life, Walt Whitman was poor. He worked odd jobs as a journalist, moving from paper to paper. After the publication of “Leaves of Grass,” he was dismissed from a job he held in Washington, apparently due to the book’s unabashed sexuality.
Noted by author W. H. Trimble, one of Whitman’s friends took up for him. William Douglas O’Connor, writing in a pamphlet, had the following to say of Whitman, whom he called “The Good Gray Poet” …
Usually his plan is to pass, with haversack strapped across his shoulder, from cot to cot, distributing small gifts ; his theory is that these men, far from home, lonely, sick at heart, need more than anything some practical token that they are not forsaken ; that someone feels a fatherly or brotherly interest in them ; hence, he gives them what he can ; to particular cases, entirely penniless, he distributes small sums of money, fifteen cents, twenty cents, thirty cents, fifty cents, not much in each case, for there are many ; but under the circumstances these little sums are and mean a great deal. He also distributes and directs envelopes ; gives a letter, paper, postage stamps, tobacco, apples, figs, sweet biscuit, preserves, blackberries ; gets delicate food for special cases ; sometimes a dish of oysters, or a dainty piece of meat, or some savoury morsel for some poor creature who loathes the hospital fare, but whose appetite may be tempted. In the hot weather he buys boxes of oranges, and distributes them, greatful to lips baked with fever……he buys whatever luxuries his limited resources will allow, and he makes them go as far as he can. Where does he get the means for this expenditure? For Walt Whitman is poor ; he is poor, and has a right to be proud of his poverty ; for it is the sacred, the ancient, the immemorial poverty of goodness and genius. He gets the means by writing for newspapers ; he expends all he gets upon his boys, his darlings, the sick and maimed soldiers. He adds to his own earnings the contributions of noble souls, often strangers, who……have heard that such a man walks the hospitals, and who volunteer to send him this assistance ; when at least he gets a place under Government……he has a salary which he spends in the same way ; sometimes his wrung heart gets the better of his prudence, and he spends till he himself is in difficulties. He gives all his money, he gives all his time, he gives all his love.
By the way, he also wants you to buy some Fucking blue jeans. Just $98 through the official Levi’s store!
Oh, but it gets better.
Walt Whitman stood adamant in his opposition to slavery. He was even a delegate to the Free Soil Party, a short-lived American political movement that sought to enforce the idea that anyone living on free soil, American soil, would be free indeed.
And here, today, his timeless voice is used to sell denim produced by the impoverished people of wherever, toiling as they may in shops known for their sweat.
In 2002, the U.S. Fair Labor Association found that Levi’s, along with Nike, Reebok and others, were in violation of fair labor practices at factories they contract through.
In just one example, the labor association found that a factory in Mexico (PDF link) which manufactures Levi’s jeans had neglected to explain to its employees that overtime work is voluntary. Some employees told the association’s inspectors that they were under the impression that overtime was mandatory. The factory was further found to be in violation of Mexican labor laws for neglecting overtime wage calculation.
What’s more, first aid kits were found to be incomplete. There was no fire safety protocol, no fire prevention training, and the factory did not even consider its workers’ lives valuable enough to so much as carry out even one fire drill. Better still, the association found missing and spent fire extinguishers throughout the facility. If so much as a spark caught in that building, it would have been an awful bloody disaster.
Add offense to injury: Safety data sheets at the plant were not even in Spanish.
The U.S. Fair Labor Association further noted similar violations at Levi Strauss-connected factories in China, India, Portugal, the Philippines and Thailand.
The company also successfully fended off a lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 workers in the U.S. commonwealth of Saipan — a notorious tax shelter. Levi’s was the lone holdout among some 27 garment makers that settled with the Saipan factory workers, who claimed to have been subjected to abhorrent working conditions. The companies, which included Gap, Inc. and “Gymboree” Corp. (apologies, I cannot write that word without quotations), admitted no wrongdoing in the matter but settled to the tune of $6.4 million. Levi Strauss refused to settle and eventually a U.S. judge ordered them released from the suit.
Lucky, lucky them.
What would Whitman have written about such a uniquely American company?
Would he have joyously celebrated an institution which left its equal daughters and equal sons to rot in the baking Texas sun?
Would the great poet have rejoiced in the servitude of those not fortunate enough to live on allegedly free soil?
Oh yes, perhaps he would have taken up for a company that stitches $5 of cloth together and resells it for nearly $100.
Or would he have beat his breast in bitter sadness and populist fury at what the “grand, sane, towering, seated Mother” America had wrought on her children?
I think Levi’s image of America as a flickering, submerged piece of glowing line art, expiring in the black and white night to the silent sound of flying fireworks is entirely fitting and entirely depressing.
Just what message is this company trying to send to those who made them what they are today?
There is a Web site which accompanies this new ad campaign. It commands the Disciples of Levi to “go forth” and write (I am not kidding) “a new Declaration of the United States of America.” In their best pseudo-poetic tone, this site cheers the “general of the new revolution” to take up a pen.
“Add your words, your images, your voice to a new declaration, refined in the spirit of today’s America,” it proclaims. “An America in which we hold these truths to be self-evident …”
These “truths” are, in fact, user-generated content. In the “gallery” below, that new “declaration” is unfurled. However, at time of this writing, only one bit of truth can be found therein.
A deadly insightful user writes: “Clever Consumerism: Profound, Profane, and Provactive [sic] Parcels of Punditry. Freedom Fighters? Existent Existentially; Emotional, Eternal.”
Amen, sir or madam. Amen.
So America, “strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,” do what you do best when provoked. Strike out, generals of the new revolution, and give Levi Strauss a piece of your declaration. By their mockery of your poor, your weak and your huddled masses; by advertising elegies on the demise of your nation, using the very words of your great gray poet against you; and by their own shallow copy, splayed about the Internet seeking without earnest a new “declaration” … They have invited your words, your just anger, your scorn.
I look forward to seeing what this page looks like in a week’s time.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a cable television subscription to cancel.