American Visual Culture Studies
15 August 2015
Individualism, resoluteness and progress as intrinsic American values in
Levi’s “GO FORTH” campaign
Levi’s print advertisement (http://data.whicdn.com/images/2690621/original.jpg) launched in 2009, as part of a whole variety of videos, short films and picture series set under the campaign’s slogan “GO FORTH”, impressively shows, what strong ideological message an advertisement can contain and in what convincing ways the company addressed their core customers in a rapidly changing (economic) environment. Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign was meant to be a global canvass to promote and position the brand of Levi’s in a transformed, economically instable world after the financial banking crisis starting in 2008 that lead to a rising global consciousness in terms of moral responsibility and individual as well as collective endeavor for progress and optimism. Nevertheless the chosen example advertisement clearly addresses an American audience as it plays with images and connotations from American cultural and historical memory.
This paper will examine the strong ideological semiotic meaning established via the specific combination of linguistic denotated, connotated and iconic (un)coded messages. In order to do so, I will elaborate the strong visual and semantic connection established between the representative company logo and the individual depicted in the image as well as elements of visual composition and their relation to the iconic coded messages referring to evocative mythological notions of American patriotism. Furthermore I will take a closer look on the denotated and connotated linguistic messages composed of the company’s name, the slogan “GO FORTH” and the main advertising text set in the center of the advertisement.Eventually, the combination of iconic (un-)coded and linguistic messages merge into a highly ideological conceptualization of values such as individualism, progress and resoluteness Levi’s embraces and promotes as their core values in a labile time of economic and social fragileness.
As Roland Barthes observes in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image” (1964), the visual and linguistic iconic uncoded denotated messages in an advertisement – signs as visual elements (objects) standing for simply what they are in ‘reality’ – contribute to a negotiation process of (mental) communication the spectator becomes part of. Only as a second step the viewer not only perceives but construes the named elements, brings them into order, builds connections between them and finally interprets them. Symbolic connotated (coded) messages emerge and suggest specific semiotic paradigms stored in the cultural knowledge at a certain time in history and hence merge into an overall statement the advertisement sends to its customers. Levi’s successfully constructs a strong individualistic, patriotic and ideological code that gets visible on various different layers of meaning by offering us as consumers the possibility to identify with them and finally take action.
The image in question depicts a young man walking up a hill in a vast mountainside turning his back towards the camera. Noticeable in this respect is the young man’s clothing as he wears classic blue jeans and a lumberjack shirt – both elements representingtheclassic items Levi’s is internationally famous for and refer back to the company’s originality and authenticity formulated on its webpage in the following way: “The pioneering spirit that started in 1873 with the very first pair of blue jeans still permeates all aspects of our business. […] Progress is woven into everything we do” (“History and Heritage” 1; “Made of Progress” 1). So Levi Strauss & Co. as the inventor of the denim jeansmarkets its brand essence via the use of American symbolism and a national, cultural conceptualization of the pioneer moving westward in times of the Frontier. The American West is the world of the pioneer, of adventure and struggle, the vessel that shaped American identity and functions as a semiotically reinforced space as it conveys notions of hope, progress and freedom – the psychological sense of endless opportunity and future orientation. In consequence, the individual depicted must be regarded as a metaphorical representative of those cultural conceptualizations by wearing Levi’s essential product in a physical landscape evoking those notions of the West as a symbolic sphere of rugged individualism and freedom.
Also, the self-absorbed pose of the young man, as well as his movement up the hill in a vast landscape support this idea. As he is turning his back towards the spectator, fixating his gaze on the ground, his figure is creating the impression of an individual that does not have to justify its activity towards anybody else and rather confidently takes responsibility for resolutely moving forward and not looking back. These implied values combined signify a universal and timeless idea how Americans ideologically determine themselves as a nation consisting of strong and progressive individuals that no longer content to wait for better times rather than to actively work for their future. Plus, those elements converging, imply a specific notion of idealized masculinity, what can be considered as fundamental for the image’s conceptual mediation of strength and progress. Levi’s advertisement sets the vast wilderness as a distinctively male space and defines masculinity as a concept with characteristics such as physicality, endurance, action, independency and courage.
The color scheme of Levi’s advertisement is composed of on the one hand warm, earthly, natural colors like brown and a bright, sun-lit yellow reflected in the soil of the hill, as well as a light blue color of the sky. Contrasting to this palette, which evokes notions of naturalness, the red visible in the individual’s lumberjack shirt and the company logo stands out and captures not only the spectator’s vantage point, but also creates a connection between Levi’s as a brand and the depicted young man. This visual amalgamation indicates an indissoluble connection of Levi’s and the representatives, who wear their clothes – at best we as their potential customers. Levi’s distinctive shade of red refers to the company’s extratextual ethics formulated as empathy, integrity, originality and courage (“Our Values” 1) and finds its projection in the young man’s clothing and symbolically transfers Levi’s ethics and values to the individual wearing their products. In combination, the advertisement’s main color codeagainpoints to America as the referred country (even if the not explicitly named) through the use of red, blue and white (the colors of the country’s flag) allowing the beholder to evocatively establish this connection.
On the level of visual composition there is certainly one central conspicuous aspect that deserves detailed consideration: the image is primarily characterized by inclination and awry lines. While the company’s logo sits in the lower left corner, the individual depicted in the image is positioned at the upper right corner. Also the extensively hilly landscape that builds the background runs obliquely as an ascending line and bottoms out at the height of the young man’s chest. Eventually, the advertisement’s main linguistic message supports the impression of axial imbalance as it is positioned slantingly to the right. In all three cases, the depicted individual forms the vanishing point and hence must be regarded as the central identificatory subject as the imbalanced lines anchorage the viewer’s gaze from the bottom left towards the upper right corner and hence projects the impression of progress onto us. But also the diagonal lines divide the image into two halves that stand in stark contrast to each other as the linguistic message “THIS COUNTRY WAS NOT BUILT BY MEN IN SUITS” written in white font color and bold type is visually subdivided into two parts via the play with light, shadow and contrast. The hills that build the horizon lie in the shadow and the first part of the text “THIS COUNTRY WAS NOT BUILT BY MEN” prominently stands out towards the dark brown background. The very last two words of the statement “IN SUITS” in contrast are overlapping the light yellow foreground and are hence less readable than the first part of the sentence. What the advertisement creates at this point is an effect that plays with the viewers expectations and the suggestion and (at the same time) negation of the statement. The sentence is a negation that puts its defining element “IN SUITS” to the very end and makes it less visible for the beholder’s eye to perceive. The first part alone would be a falsified statement as certainly this countrywasbuilt by men, but the advertisement suggests, that there are (at least two) different sorts of men who can be recognized through the attribute of wearing a suit or not. As the young man depicted wears quite the opposite of a formal suit, he belongs to those men who contributed to the building of this nation as his clothing implies his connection to nature (rather than being part of urban suit culture) and his hard, physical work (rather than gambling on the stock exchange). What happens in effect is the formation of a dichotomous opposition that builds the most significant theme within the advertisement - the mediation of an overall notion of a changing American society, imbalanced and divided. On the one side, there are the pioneers addressed, on the other side the men in suits, who are not explicitly visible in the image itself (absences are in this context to be interpreted as negative presences), representing the semiotic downside of this conception as they are being made responsible for the negative developments in precisely “THIS COUNTRY”.
Also, the chosen typeface reflects the established linguistic message that juxtaposes the pioneer in opposition to men in suits. The statement consists of only capital letters, the outlines of the font are uneven, rough and striated what strengthens the connection to naturalness as it conveys an informal, almost rebellious impression. The typeface of the letters resembles the way how words that are carved into wood or repeatedly written out on a bill would look like and hence leave the impression of an announcement rather than a company slogan. The visual design of the written material is strong and prominent what reinforces its purport: What is written here can be considered as true and valid.
While the central textual element must be read as a moral and with it social comment, a secondary layer of linguistic message must not be forgotten: The campaign’s slogan “Go Forth” is articulated twice within the advertisement, set underneath the company logo and on the very right corner in form of the link “LEVI.COM/GOFORTH”. This textual element builds a direct command towards the addressees, implicitly placing them inside the advertisement as someone who should go forth, take up action and not only passively consume. We as viewers get incorporated into the negotiation process of the moral and social difficulty the image makes a subject of discussion. By calling on the consumers to follow the depicted young man as he is aspiring to progress in order to reestablish American resoluteness and confidence, the individualistic perspective gets broadened towards a collective sense of responsibility. By doing so Levi’s strikingly succeeds in selling the idea of a corporate spirit that has the potential to recollect America’s intrinsic values to fight off times of crisis.
The multiple semiotic layers, combined within Levi’s advertisement, coalesce towards an overall idea of a rising consciousness on the side of the addressees to move forth, be optimistic and confident in times of crisis. The company sets up a dichotomous moral conception, promoting individual (middle-class’s) strive for personalandcollective achievement together with its contribution to the country’s greatness and rejecting the greed for money associated with “men in suits” on the contrary. Just like the young man depicted, we ought not to look back and rather be proud of the achievements we have made through honest, hard work. Therefore the advertisement makes use of semiotic imagery and symbolic connotations rooted in American self-understatement such as expressive individualism and the mythical conception of the self-made man. Eventually, the primarily aim of Levi’s campaign is not to sell a specific product as neither the denim jeans nor the lumberjack shirt the male model wears are focalized and explicitly displayed. The advertisement does not promote exactly what to wear, ratherhowto wear it and in addition defines what the Levi’s apparel culturally and ideologically stands for. The company wants to project a certain pioneer spirit onto its customers and sell the idea of fortitude and progressiveness in drastically shifting times of crisis. What Levi’s creates in effect by doing so is a both an authenticandinnovative image of the company itself, arguing in support of all those, who suffered most under the economic depression, without being responsible for it.
Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.”Image-Music-Text.Trans. S. Heath. NY: Hill & Wang, 1977. Print
“History and Heritage.”Levi’s. n.d. Web. 15 August 2015 <http://www.levi.com/us/en_US/about/history-heritage>
“Made of Progress.”Levi’s. n.d. Web. 15 August 2015 <http://www.levi.com/us/en_US/madeofprogress>
“Our Values”Levi’s. n.d. Web. 15 August 2015 <http://www.levi.com/us/en_US/about/our-company>
As print advertisements are characterized by the simultaneity of all visible elements (unlike a film for example), there is no specific chronological order for the analysis. My approach will be to look at the chosen example in its entirety in order to describe the relationships between certain elements and their contribution to the overall semiotic message.
The original „Levi’s“, invented in the 1850s, has ever since been worn by farmers, cowboys, railwaymen or craftsmen and hence are securely established as pants for the hard working (blue collar) social class.
At this point one has to critically remark that the advertisement’s mediation of heroic masculinity testifies a clearly hegemonic perspective as it draws on a concept of gender that excludes women from the founding myth of the nation and attaches a higher importance and status to males as representatives of the pioneers. To make this cultural national reference is nevertheless a bold move as the abstract moral conceptions still contribute to a collective self-understanding of a large part of American society today and visual representations of this mental imagery of masculinity are still omnipresent in American Visual Culture.
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- individualism resoluteness progress intrinsic american values levi’s forth” campaign