America’s decline has been much documented. Photo-essays of its decaying cities and treatises on its diminished economic standing abound. Is it so wrong, then, for an advertising agency to focus a campaign around one US city’s resolution to escape its plight?
I was transfixed by the ad above on first viewing. Aesthetically and emotively it’s exquisite. On a purely instinctive level I bought into the underlying message of a community reuniting around a vision of urban and spiritual renewal.
Mostly though, I saw it as the kind of work ad agencies should be doing – convincing their clients to play more meaningful roles as active participators in society, companies serving a good greater than that of shareholder value. Constructive capitalism, to quote Umair Haque.
If only it were that simple.
As this carefully weighed essay makes clear, Levi’s (and by extension Wieden + Kennedy) may well have done some good for the town of Braddock, but they’ve also left themselves open to accusations of exploitation and hypocrisy. I quote:
“The second and most frequently voiced criticism of the Levis campaign is that it doesn’t bring any Levis jobs to Braddock—or anywhere else in the United States. Of the 40 blog sites and news stories that I reviewed about the ad campaign, most excoriated Levis for taking its denim garment production overseas and for cynically using the still-unemployed people of Braddock as models for clothing they probably could never afford without the Levis campaign.”
Do read the rest of the essay for the full story of this campaign and the backlash.
For what it’s worth I think agencies need to continue pushing clients in this direction, regardless of how uncomfortable it gets for them. The days when companies can outsource and undercut their way to profit regardless of the cost to society are fading.
Imagine the positive press if Levi’s were to now go a step or two further and bring some of its production back onto US soil. But imagine if it did it not because it would generate goodwill and excellent PR, but because it knew it was the right thing to do.
It’s admittedly a bit of a stretch from W+K asking its client to commit to a short-term partnership with a beaten-up Pennsylvania town to the agency playing a vital role in Levi’s evolution from a soulless, faceless corporate entity into an engaged business that wants the best for all people, and not just its own. A stretch, yes. But not impossible.