The 2012 Whitney Biennial featured LaToya Ruby Frazier’s response to Wieden + Kennedy’s 2010 “Go Forth” ad campaign for Levi’s jeans. The films and posters attempt to persuade our American youths to take up the pioneering standards of our forefathers with luscious views of derelict pastorals, voiceovers of canonized poetry, and slogans veiled as maxims like, ”Let the Average Man Be Divine,“ and “We Are All Workers.” The ads were shot in Frazier’s hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania (population < 2,500), and romanticize the Pittsburgh borough as a frontier of equity and glory.
Frazier, who received one of this year’s 24 MacArthur genius grants, has created several photographic series that work to clarify W+K’s subversive omissions by faithfully documenting Braddock’s destitute environment. Her ongoing exhibition The Notion of Family—the new publication of which was just awarded with ICP’s Infinity Award—anticipates the need for revisionist historiography that media like W+K’s campaign requires. With gelatin silver photographs and color home videos, The Notion of Family has shared with viewers the truer sides of Braddock since 2002, eight years before the Levi’s campaign launched.
However, while Frazier’s counter-ad campaigns have largely been held as the radical foil to W+K’s “Go Forth”, which exploits America’s thirst for egalitarianism, both series of images tell the same story of American history. Just as Frazier intends to keep her audience aware of, for example, the enduring poverty in towns like Braddock wrought by steel factories moving and their main hospital closing, W+K likewise intended to educate their audience’s perception of how American history has been written, neglected, and laundered. The egalitarianism has been used as an ironic ploy that succeeds as both product marketing and insurgent pedagogy.
The tradition of W+K advertising is rooted in a shadowed language that would make Orwell proud. Though full of feel-good morsels like “Tomorrow Starts Now” and “Write the Future” for Nike, “Be the Next American Hero,” for game developer Electronic Arts, and “Resist Simple” for Diageo, a European liquor distributor, some of W+K’s sentiments reach higher stakes with audiences in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Delhi, where a 30-second spot praising individuality, curiosity, or even general feminism takes on the form of radical cultural imagery. This balancing between motivational speech and political communication appears to be the backbone of W+K’s diabolical dynamism.
For Finlandia vodka W+K created “1000 Years of Less Ordinary Wisdom,” a two-minute film that cycles through the mostly wholesome advice of oddball characters from around the world: too old is a lousy excuse; keep pushing or quit dreaming; go out dancin.’ But then we meet a pair of elderly twins who suggest, “Stop thinking you’re unique.” Spliced between maxims that compel personal gain and endurance, this contrary note flashes like a subliminal message to remind us that we are among the masses, all of us a familiar cog in the consumer grind.
W+K routinely pumps out familiar maxims by reordering their radical tones, as in“Every action has a crowd reaction” for Nike and “Who cleans the cleaners?” for Finish Detergent. For Weight Watchers they called their campaign, “All You Can Eat.” The film’s narrator acts as our drug dealer, asking us to get baked, glazed, iced, and fried. It’s a montage of chefs, trucks and storage facilities, piles of sugar and meat and crowded malls. W+K’s campaign for eating less food hangs it hat on addiction and gluttony.
Their “Go Forth” campaign for Levi’s lays particularly troubling glosses over political unrest. The posters feature individuals standing in fields or backflipping over lakes. Hand-scrawled fonts remind us that “everybody’s work is equally important,” and “this country was not built by men in suits.” One of four films in particular pulls in Charles Bukowski’s few upbeat poems, “The Laughing Heart,” and begins with what looks like a protesting mass taking to the streets. We see more young people kissing in pools and yawping with confetti and campfires. They play the guitar and party and one young man stands against a line of riot police. He hollers and lifts his arms and models for them his well-fitted and rugged Levi’s jacket.
Another film pulls in Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!,” a rally cry of a poem that explains the burden of the future that rests on the shoulders of our youth. Written in 1900, the poem excites the myth of America’s industrious mettle. We watch a band of wild millennials run and grapple and take on and off their pre-washed Levi’s clothing for no reason in particular.
This hollow romance rings again through W+K’s only film that forefronts Braddock, PA, which takes the official title of the ad. A lone white man stands beside his dog and a small fire and watches a slow train. A mixed-race couple wakes up, a black father and his son prepare for the day, workers on scaffolding replace a church’s stained glass, white folks kick through weeds, a brown skinned man wearing a yellow construction hat shadow boxes on the stage of a derelict auditorium. All this while the feeble voice of a girl child explains American history. She says, “A long time ago, things got broken here. People got sad and left. Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so that we can have work to do. People think there aren’t frontiers anymore. They can’t see how frontiers are all around us.”
In 2009, Levi’s paid $1,500,000 to Braddock Mayor John Fetterman’s nonprofit Braddock Redux for the rights to use the borough as the backdrop for their ad campaign. While this money has funded creative policies and programs that have helped breathe new life into Braddock, many citizens, Frazier among them, have protested this deceptive support.
Home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, Braddock has lost 90% of its residents since 1920—falling from 20,000 to less than 3,000 today— the result of, as Maurice Berger from the NYT Lens Blog summarizes, “mill closings, chronic unemployment, toxic waste, redlining and white flight.” Since 2004, Mayor Fetterman has developed handfuls of DIY initiatives (planting trees in abandoned lots, land-banking, urban farms), earning the attention of Readymade Magazine in 2007, which in turn spurred coverage from the New York Times, The Daily Beast, and news crews visiting from around the world. All praising Braddock’s scrappy against-all-odds attitude, the media’s tenor there matched the aspirational quality of W+K’s campaign.
“Go Forth” largely omits or outright ignores Braddock’s traceable decline (“People got sad and left. Maybe the world breaks on purpose”). The smokestacks have leaked toxins into the blood of the town’s citizens. Like many of her neighbors, Frazier lives with Lupus. Two years after the campaign launched, the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center left Braddock due to slouching profits. Frazier’s mother is currently dying of cancer while living blocks away from this vacated hospital. “While everyone’s work is equally same,” Frazier said in a 2011 episode of Art 21, referencing one of W+K’s slogans, “our top employer, Braddock UPMC abandoned our town and fired 600 people,” leaving the locals without health care or jobs. “But,” she continues, “we have a Levi’s ad campaign that says, ‘Go forth.’ And I would like to know, go forth where?”
When W+K places a black man in a field behind the slogan “everybody’s work is equally important,” Frazier calls the juxtaposition “insidious.” Frazier describes her work as a “counter-narrative and a push back against this type of romanticizing. It’s not romantic. There’s nothing beautiful about it. I’m showing the human cost of the global economy and the failure of our government to regulate the steel industry, the environmental ruin it has caused.” She calls for a “radical documentary work” to right the wrongs of media campaigns like “Go Forth” that conceal the hard truths.
Although the bulk of this campaign faithfully cloaks American history with piddling hopes for bootstrapping ourselves into the future, one film in particular obtains the same goal as The Notion of Family. Titled, “America,” this 1:01 minute-long film in fact mirrors Frazier’s own complex representation of the state of our union.
The film begins with the word “America” spelled out in big neon blocks all half-sunken into river water. Featuring another Whitman poem, this is the only film in the campaign that includes subtitles, a decision that heightens the impact of such inspiring verse by visually pairing Whitman’s text with with images saturated by contemporary issues of racial and economic inequity.
We hear Whitman’s own voice trill through the 100-year-old noise floor, which has been manipulated to ebb like the rhythm of a strolling train. The film ends with “America” once again sinking and youths running with a banner, Go Forth, with the sound of drums and fireworks that sound like gunshots ringing through the darkness.
In contrast to “Go Forth,” Frazier describes The Notion of Family as being about the raw impact of American globalization, about the towns now rid of viable opportunities for labor, health care and early education, “the part that people won’t tell… they don’t highlight the backside of what happened when those steel mills left the country and closed.”
W+K’s ostensible message clearly favors this injurious affection for so-called ruin porn, the preference to see a damaged landscape as aesthetic rather than political, but the film “America” functions by presenting several opposing perspectives in the span of one minute. The styling of the “Go Forth” campaign will keep some audiences rapt by filling them with feelings that might well up the next time they think about getting another pair of pants: pioneering, nostalgia, grit, jubilation, Levi’s. Others may see the film “America” as W+K’s subversive allocation of corporate funding toward counter-capitalist messaging, the kind that could only be broadcasted under the guise of aesthetics, a sugar-coated bitter pill.
The difference between these perspectives cannot be simply a matter of awareness. We should by now be well guarded with a suspicion of advertising, but not for their educational qualities. This advertisement reminds us of America’s racist and classist woes by insisting that we strive, all while hawking some clothing. Under the guise of consumer marketing, “America” is a radical documentary work. W+K’s lesson is an accusation of mass complicity caught in the tangled images of product placement.
Given all the media of W+K’s “Go Forth” campaign, the film “America” proves just how hollow this slogan sounds while nonetheless duping us into believing that maybe it’s not all so bad. We now know why Braddock’s soil is barren. Some of us could go forth and do something about it, but those jeans just look so hot. Or maybe, we now know why Braddock’s soil is barren, and some of us could go forth and something about it, and those jeans just look so hot.
Like any strong work of art, “America” stops short of community organization. Barring a national conscription to social change, art can only ask us to alter our future decisions and reflect on past actions. When Frazier asks, “Go forth where?” it seems the answer does not belong to corporations and ad agencies, the ultimate deceit.
About Nathan Young
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Last modified: November 4, 2015