Essay: GO FORTH: Levi’s and the Modern Day Cowboy

“O Pioneers!,” an offshoot from Levi’s 2013 “GO FORTH” advertising campaign, is a powerful commercial that uses the complex laying of signs to reinforce the cultural myth of youth as rebellion, and well as a rebirth of the myth of the West. This video ad was created after a series of successful print ads, each using the formula of an inspiring call-to-actionlayered over a portrait of an exuberant youth in a nature setting. While any one of these print ads would be worthy of semiotic analysis, the O Pioneers! commercial is an especially artful depiction of the larger identity at the historical root of Levi Strauss & Co., which this campaign aimed at their young adult demographic; that of the modern cowboy.

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Unlike print, video uses two additional methods of signification: movement and sound. To begin, let’s address the sounds being used to drive this ad, starting with a dramatic reading of the titular poem,Pioneers! O Pioneers!  by Walt Whitman, originally published in the collection Leaves of Grass in 1865 and available in full here. Even for those unfamiliar with Whitman, his entreaty to the “Western youths,” who “bear the brunt of danger” evokes a strong sense of Americana; of reckless exploration, of untamed lands, of “hard work and hard leisure” (Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, 4). When layered with quiet sounds from nature, the distant rumbling of thunder, and punctuated intermittently by a single strike of a snare drum, this speech subtly creates an environment which conveys that youths who wear Levi’s jeans have some instinctive higher calling. The producers’ choice to choose a selection by Whitman, who was a controversial poet during his time and pioneer in his own right, instead of another author, points at what this ad campaign believes its demographic will be inspired by. As the comments on the ad’s YouTube link confirm, they were right.

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Movement is also relevant in creating this iteration of the cowboy mythos. Many of the images are shot in low light, or the subject isn’t in focus, or the camera is moving too quickly for the viewer to get more than just an impression of the events. Although this is uncommon, the appearance that this commercial has a low production value lends it authenticity with the supposed reckless, in-the-moment lifestyle it peddles, as well as creates an illusion that the audience is the one who is behind the camera. Many of the actions depicted in this advertisement–running, dancing, roaring, jumping, climbing, kissing, fighting, traveling–demonstrate strength of body. These young adults are not sedentary; rather, like the cowboy, they live in constant motion, and are more averse to stagnation than ending up in an unpleasant situation. Many of these instances of movement are timed to coincide with the rallying of Whitman’s call. We can see a progression from scenes showing individuals to scenes showing groups, and it is no coincidence that most of the more joyous actions take place once these groups have been formed. While these sounds and movements do not add up to the myth of the modern day cowboy by themselves, when used in tandem, this commercial entices its audience to reclaim a simple, connected, and emotionally meaningful lifestyle, which is, of course, enabled by Levi’s jeans.

If in print advertising, the signification of an image in undoubtedly intentional (Barthes,Rhetoric of the Image, 33), in video advertising, we can understand recurring items and actions to be the carriers of meaning. Let’s look at some of the scenes in this advertisement and the signs within them as they are presented. As stated earlier, many of the images in the first half of the ad are of individuals, and seem very disconnected from each other. One series of images that stands out is as follows:

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We are first shown a scene of a man listlessly running a stick along a fence, immediately followed by that of a young woman looking breathless and terrified, small against the black background, and then one of another individual walking through a tunnel. Individually these images can have very different meanings, but in succession, these images evoke the feeling that these young people are caged, by urbanity and by authority figures, and that by leaving behind the values of the city and answering the “call of the wild,” they can find fulfillment. O Pioneers! pushes back against homogeneous office attire, against the work routine that the ad’s demographic, many of which are either recent college graduates   or will soon be graduating, has found themselves a part of. This illusion of a free lifestyle away from the influence of society is a strong part of the cowboy mythos, as well as is the “attractive but disheveled” state that many of the young adults in this commercial are in.

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An important but easy to overlook aspect of signs is how they define by opposition. When looking at Levi’s previous campaign, LIVE UNBUTTONED, it’s easy to see just how easy it is to change a brand’s image using naturalized semiotics. Released in 2008 around the same time as the stock market crash, these commercials are dripping with sexuality and are staged in highly urban settings. The print ads are the same; flaunting excess andperfectly sculpted bodies. The 20-somethings that this ad campaign identified with were still confident in the job market and had money to spare on clothes that were worn to be taken off. In their leisure time, they wanted the glamorous pop culture lifestyle they witnessed when they were teens in the 90s to be realized. However, the next batch of 20-somethings were disillusioned. They wanted something that couldn’t be bought with money, because they knew better than to place complete faith in the economy. So, Levi’s next move was the GO FORTH campaign, which allowed them to skillfully rebrand themselves using modern versions of the myth of the cowboy to distance themselves from their previous persona. By looking at history, it becomes clear that no sign is natural, and that Levi’s ability to constantly connect with its changing demographic speaks to the multitude of meanings that can easily be placed on jeans. Moreover, by looking at the multitude of signs present in O Pioneers! in this way, we can see that the myth of the cowboy desired by and echoed by young people; that is, to look further, to do better. Indeed, to go forth.

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