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Oct. 16 2009 - 5:27 pm | 1,088 views | 3 recommendations | 20 comments

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.

Watch:

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

America

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.

america_according_to_levis

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Why so shocked? My watershed moment of nausea happened when I heard a John Lennon song in a Nike commercial. Silly us if we don’t know everything is for sale.

  2. collapse expand

    You wanna know what comes between me and my jeans? Capitalism.

    • collapse expand

      Diebenow: Yeah, and jeans are the least of it. Capitalism, at least how it really functions, keeps the wealth in the pockets of a precious few. Doesn’t have to be that way. I’m so miffed at how all the bailed out banks are making out like bandits. Not like bandits, they ARE bandits. Any solutions? From where I sit, the problem is that banks and corporations have more “human rights” that we humans. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I’ll buy any brand of jeans I find at the Goodwill store that fit well for two bucks, or one buck on Wednesday. That’s my kind of capitalism. If anybody is dumb enough to spend almost a hundred bucks on a pair of pants, jeans, no less, I doubt if they can quote Whitman.

  4. collapse expand

    in the spirit of twitter, facebook and all the other communication tools i don’t use anymore because of this kind of desperate attention seeking by american companies, i am no longer using uppercase letters in my writing. thinkingaboutdroppingspacingandpunctuationtoo in the meantime, i going to see if i can find a kmart still open and sbuy a pair of 20 dollar wranglers, or have they screwed us too?

  5. collapse expand

    Wow…..just wow. That was a very enlightening, educational article. I had never heard of Walt Whitman’s poetry, nor did i know his past and his deeds and outlook. I watched the commercial and after it was done i was like “whats wrong with that?” then i read further and learned.

    Let me explain what the commercial made me feel/think.

    To me, the commercial is a metaphor for where America is today, battered, beaten down, poor, divided, looking for hope. The words of Whitman flow over the images as if to try to inspire the viewer by tapping into what every American feels at the moment about this once great, yet hollowed out nation. Its a shallow facade that counts on the cable TV watching American consumer zombie not knowing jack shit about history, the world beyond the borders of the USA, the poet they are using, or his words while maintaining the image that Levi Strauss is still an American company. So are we to assume that by buying Levi jeans we are helping America rebuild?

    Bullshit.

    See this is the problem I have with modern times…..this is why i shut myself out of the world, keep to myself, stay humble, basic and frugal; everything is fake, hollowed out and sold to us Ala carte these days. This nation is too brain dead to notice the glaring contrast between said company, and said poet. I know this because until i read to the bottom of your story, i didn’t notice the blaring contrast. I would have seen that commercial on TV and not thought much about it. You pointed out something so true. 99% of all the things we buy, eat, wear, use, and throw out is made by slave labor in the third world. Ever time i see a Walmart commercial telling me to “live well, spend less” i immediately fill with anger and turn the channel, or shut the radio because I know who pays the price for me to “live well and pay less” I don’t know if you have ever seen the documentary “Walmart: The high cost of low prices” but if not, see it. Walmart killed local businesses all over this nation, killed the mom and pop shop and encouraged outsourcing and the eradication of the unions. Some more companies that deserve condemning is GM and Ford, they provide the cars and jeeps to some of the dictator regimes that enslave local populations in the sweat shops. Another great expose on American consumer imperialism is John Perkins Economic hit-man book. Where it describes how American corporations go into the third world and exploit the workers for cheap labor to sell their shit to a gullible, spoiled, self entitled, dumbed down consumer zombie population.

    This is one of the reasons i rarely ever watch TV or listen to the radio, or go to the movies. I HATE advertisements, i hate being talked to on a 3rd grade level, i hate being made to feel like if i don’t buy whatever im being sold that there is something wrong with me. I also am well aware of where most of the shit these companies make came from, who made it, and who in America lost a job for it. Condescending fuckin commercials…..

    Even though this nation has been ruled by its central bankers and elites for a hell of a long time, this country was once a very mighty industrial power, we used to make everything here, “Made in the USA” used to mean something. Now its as rare as a politician quoting the constitution. This nation complains about job losses, outsourcing and third world slavery yet still buys the products these nazi companies make! Im not a big fasionista, i buy clothes twice a year, once for summer, once for winter, i have been wearing the same pair of jeans for two years. They are faded and torn and my shirts are too tight and they are faded. i simply do not any longer buy into the “i gotta look good” mall-shopping-over-priced-vanity-consumerism. I haven’t been a consumer zombie since i was in high school since i didn’t know any better. Even more-so now, I don’t buy modern media, fashion, or subscribe to the notion that i have to have the best clothes, or newest gadgets. That’s the problem with this nation of sheeple. We are being conditioned to be shallow, uneducated consumers, nothing more! We are no longer taught to be free thinking, empowered, innovative, productive people like our grandparents generation was. We are being dumbed down into simple consumers. I would love to be in my 70’s for just a moment so i can have that memory of what America was in its industrial, creative, innovative prime. We are a hollowed out nation and this commercial proves it.

    i am going to post some excerpts from a document called “Silent weapons for Quiet wars” i do not know if its a real government document, but it explains a hell of a lot about the modern American sheeples psychological make up in regards to consumerism. i will post the link at the bottom so you can read the whole document.

    as follows.

    Consequently, in the interest of future world order, peace, and tranquillity, it was decided to privately wage a quiet war against the American public with an ultimate objective of permanently shifting the natural and social energy (wealth) of the undisciplined and irresponsible many into the hands of the self-disciplined, responsible, and worthy few.

    In conclusion, the objective of economic research, as conducted by the magnates of capital (banking) and the industries of commodities (goods) and services, is the establishment of an economy which is totally predictable and manipulatable.

    In order to achieve a totally predictable economy, the low-class elements of society must be brought under total control, i.e., must be housebroken, trained, and assigned a yoke and long-term social duties from a very early age, before they have an opportunity to question the propriety of the matter. In order to achieve such conformity, the lower-class family unit must be disintegrated by a process of increasing preoccupation of the parents and the establishment of government-operated day-care centers for the occupationally orphaned children.

    The quality of education given to the lower class must be of the poorest sort, so that the moat of ignorance isolating the inferior class from the superior class is and remains incomprehensible to the inferior class. With such an initial handicap, even bright lower class individuals have little if any hope of extricating themselves from their assigned lot in life. This form of slavery is essential to maintain some measure of social order, peace, and tranquillity for the ruling upper class.
    Introduction to Economic Amplifiers

    Economic amplifiers are the active components of economic engineering. The basic characteristic of any amplifier (mechanical, electrical, or economic) is that it receives an input control signal and delivers energy from an independent energy source to a specified output terminal in a predictable relationship to that input control signal.

    The simplest form of an economic amplifier is a device called advertising.

    If a person is spoken to by a TV advertiser as if he were a twelve-year-old, then, due to suggestibility, he will, with a certain probability, respond or react to that suggestion with the uncritical response of a twelve-year-old and will reach into his economic reservoir and deliver its energy to but that product on impulse when he passes it in the store.
    Diversion, the Primary Strategy

    Experience has prevent that the simplest method of securing a silent weapon and gaining control of the public is to keep the public undisciplined and ignorant of the basic system principles on the one hand, while keeping them confused, disorganized, and distracted with matters of no real importance on the other hand.

    This is achieved by:

    * disengaging their minds; sabotaging their mental activities; providing a low-quality program of public education in mathematics, logic, systems design and economics; and discouraging technical creativity.
    * engaging their emotions, increasing their self-indulgence and their indulgence in emotional and physical activities, by:
    o unrelenting emotional affrontations and attacks (mental and emotional rape) by way of constant barrage of sex, violence, and wars in the media – especially the TV and the newspapers.
    o giving them what they desire – in excess – “junk food for thought” – and depriving them of what they really need.
    * rewriting history and law and subjecting the public to the deviant creation, thus being able to shift their thinking from personal needs to highly fabricated outside priorities.

    These preclude their interest in and discovery of the silent weapons of social automation technology.

    The general rule is that there is a profit in confusion; the more confusion, the more profit. Therefore, the best approach is to create problems and then offer solutions.
    Diversion Summary

    Media: Keep the adult public attention diverted away from the real social issues, and captivated by matters of no real importance.

    Schools: Keep the young public ignorant of real mathematics, real economics, real law, and real history.

    Entertainment: Keep the public entertainment below a sixth-grade level.

    Work: Keep the public busy, busy, busy, with no time to think; back on the farm with the other animals.

    See the above makes it pretty clear why these corporations make comercials like that. They know most of us are too dumb to see it for what it is, like you did in your story.

    It reminds me of a lyric from Immortal Technique;

    “What the industry did to Pac, they did to Jesus, raping his vocals, and then destroying the message” Thats what modern American capitalism is. Sell cheap shit to bankrupt souls, and use a great intellectual to make it seem worthwhile.

    Fuck.

    Ps. Read this. I dont know if its a real document, but read it and hold it up to modern society and tell me it doesnt look like a blueprint for getting an intellegent, productive, innovative people to regress to an undissaplined, uneducated mass of barbarian consumer zombies just smart enough to do the heavy lifting, but not smart enough to see the dick in their ass.

    http://www.conspiracyarchive.com/NWO/silent_weapons_quiet_wars.htm

  6. collapse expand

    Geez, and I thought I was already mad as hell…

  7. collapse expand

    You’re pissed? Yeah, aren’t we all? My petpiss right now is the discovery of details of how credit card companies work. They get to borrow money from the govt at less than one percent. You know where this money comes from. From us. So when we are foolish enough to buy stuff on credit cards, we pay 18, 21, 27 percent interest on this money. We’re borrowing our own money at usurious rates, and it’s the same aforementioned money that Chase,Amex, etc. gets from the government at virtually no interest. Huh? Really guys, it’s fun to bitch about expensive jeans, the wanton disregard for the sacred words of our poet laureates, cheap commericialism, ad nauseaum. But we’re being screwed. The banking industry is supposedly offering a service to the public. In fact, what they are doing is padding their own fat ass wallets with the largest slice of the pie. How did this happen? Nobody has been keeping the foxes in check as they have been raiding the chicken coop for years. Yes, there will always be the haves and the havenots. It’s unbearable for me to think that the coffers of the haves are filled with what little the havenots own. How can these companies charge 27 percent on credit cards? Because nobody says they can’t. Why will they charge you 40 bucks when you’re a day late? For the same reason. As Michael Moore recently commented, Bernie Madoff’s biggest crime was not going across town to rip off from the little guys. He was stealing from his own.

  8. collapse expand

    Every stitch of clothing I own is made in the USA. There still are American companies out there. If you don’t know where to look, ask the all-knowing google, madeinusa.com, madeinusa.org, etc.

    All American Clothing Company, formerly known as Union Jean Co., is an excellent example. http://www.allamericanclothing.com/

    Just went on the website, and I saw jeans for $31.50-$34.50.

    • collapse expand

      Patriot: I know what you mean – I cringe when I see that virtually anything for sale is made in China. There’s something just wrong about jeans made outside the US. Jeans? And I just heard on the radio that Vizio, who makes flat screen TVs, is selling theirs for half the price. I don’t have to tell you why they can do this. As I mentioned, my solution to the subject at hand – ridiculously expensive Levis – is I never buy new pants, opting for the Goodwill Store and Salvation Army stores. But this isn’t helping US companies.
      If any one nationality knows the power of its citizens, it’s us, or should I say US. So, what are we gonna do besides buy American made stuff? The country is so divided, even more so than during the Vietnam era. Do you think there are other strategies besides lobbying our senators? The distribution of wealth has never been more skewed, with the top one percent owning more than the rest of us. What are we going to do? Not a rhetorical question!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    Wow, this is quite a well written article. But, I have to ask: do people still make their own clothes like my grandparents did for their children? do people even know how to stitch up a hole in a piece of clothing anymore?

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    About Me

    My name is Stephen. I am a News Junkie and an assistant editor at RawStory.com. My work has appeared in publications both printed and online, including The Dallas Business Journal, the cover of Fort Worth Weekly and in the pages of The Dallas Morning News, Austin Monthly, Envy Magazine and others. I also covered the rebirth of the U.S. peace movement first-hand for The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, starting with the city's first public screening of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' all the way through the end of Cindy Sheehan's stay. I've seen my reporting discussed in publications such as Time, Wired, Reason, The Washington Post, D Magazine, The Guardian UK, Media Matters, ThinkProgress, Alternet, Cannabis Culture, 1-UP, Destructoid, Kotaku, GameSpot, G4TV and many others. I am currently open for freelance assignments and actively seeking a literary agent. You can follow me on Twitter @StephenCWebster, or from Facebook.com/StephenCWebster.

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