Guest Post: Can advertising be too good?


In this very rare guest post John Shaw, Chief Strategy Officer at WPP’s Team Red, asks whether sometimes advertising can be too good, not for the brand but for the consumer.


Long, long ago in the mid- 1980’s, Levi’s 501’s created a moment for me – a fashion moment, a music moment, an advertising moment. The commercial that did it wasn’t Launderette, at first, but its lesser known sibling in which a guy takes a bath to get some shrinkage, while a fan spins and sirens whine outside. I bought the jeans, discovered Sam Cooke, swallowed gratefully the whole advertising-fuelled emotional package. So I’ve always had an affection for Levi’s and its advertising, and I wanted them to find a new success formula because of their great heritage, even though I hadn’t worn the jeans for years and years.



When I first saw the ‘Go Forth’ campaign, I thought they’d nailed it. It felt like a brilliant update, a reinvention of the authentic pioneer spirit that would be completely relevant to modern America, and then to other parts of the world when it was rolled out a couple of years later. It seemed to have plenty of legs, I read an article about its benefits to the business, I anticipated the exemplary case study. Stirring stuff.



But that’s not what happened. Instead Levi’s, a client with a history of long-standing agency relationships, parted ways with W+K after not all that long. I was surprised, but there may be very simple reasons for any agency move that aren’t immediately obvious. But I was even more surprised, when I asked around a bit (and not just among old gits like myself), that people had such differing views on the campaign. Some had liked it, like me, and felt that the account must have moved because of politics, because the campaign wasn’t given much budget, or because the brand had become so mundane that communications couldn’t save it. But one or two others had a different view, that the campaign was too dark or that it felt dated and wouldn’t have relevance to contemporary youth.

When the campaign was launched Bob Garfield reviewed it in Ad Age. In essence he said that it was ‘too good’, that its message was too powerful and well executed, and that an ironic and post-modern generation would resist putting such a profound statement on their bums. It’s an intriguing thought, which challenges a lot of accepted wisdom. I wouldn’t particularly relish telling a creative director his campaign was insufficiently post-modern, but maybe I just need to get some obnoxiousness training. (‘You call this post-modern? I spit on your fixie, you full-bearded hack!) I guess if Garfield was right, then the fact that Go Forth was a ‘brand’ campaign would exacerbate the problem, unlike the earlier UK work where the brand was built through ‘product’ advertising.

I’m not really convinced. I still prefer my gut feeling, that the work was powerful but other factors meant that it lost traction within Levi’s. But a grain of doubt remains. Not enough to give me sleepless nights, but enough to get me writing this on the Hammersmith & City line rather than reading mindless drivel about house prices soaring in the London suburbs. At least some things haven’t changed since the 80’s.

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12 Replies to “Guest Post: Can advertising be too good?”

  1. It’s a well-made piece of film.

    But I’m not sure that it would make me more likely to think of the brand in a buying situation

    And I’m not sure it would improve the brand’s physical availability

    So I’m guessing it therefore under-performed the client’s expectations in terms of effectiveness

  2. No contradiction between the two views: one in fact causes the other
    1) The message is almost “political” and that does not go well with urban millennials.
    2) So it loses traction: no hedonism, no “urban-street fashion” feel etc.
    And yes, although the message wants to be inspiring the tone is defo too dark…no Coca Cola “feel-good” vibe at all.
    Ultimately maybe the intentions were not too well executed.
    As always in these cases. wish I could see the briefs: from client to agency and from planner to creatives.

    1. Well, hedonism’s an interesting word and it’s always interesting to speculate what ‘tonal’ words might have been discussed. I don’t know cos I’ve never worked on Levi’s, but I think ‘authentic’ was there for 501’s. But in a way it was an escapist authenticity, almost a fantasy world for people like me who didn’t remember the era. Go Forth feels authentic, but less escapist…I hope no-one tells me what really happened and spoils my idle speculation..

  3. When I worked on Wrangler in the mid ’90s I was reasonably convinced that the mythology of jeans was located in labour, rebellion and sex. Its clear that Go Forth delivered the integrity and dignity of labour and to an extent the ethos of rebellion but maybe it missed on the makes you look and feel goddam sexy bit. Just a thought.

  4. It feels to me that this work missed that transcendent moment because, in essence, it’s not credible, and you can sniff it a mile off.

    The message of the commercial is directly contra to the mission of the people who’ve bought media for it. If people were to follow the words, they would not buy Levi’s, they would not believe that their happiness depended on a purchase, they would quit their job and go forth. Maybe they did. There’s a real issue with brands getting close to this ideology, it starts to reek.

    Kudos to the wk creatives for getting such a cool film made about such a stirring and beautiful sentiment, but how do Bukowski’s words reflect on a mega-corporation with stores staffed by disenfranchised, underpaid kids? How is it credible for this company who’s head office is no doubt staffed by people too scared to quit their jobs and go and live their life, to go out there and suggest that my life is my life and I shouldn’t let it be clubbed into dank submission. They want it to be clubbed into dank submission, they want me to submit. It’s all they want.

    Big minus points to the wk creatives for making something that evidently didn’t help Levi’s sell their product in a credible way.

    It can’t be good if it didn’t work. Nothing is too good. It works or it doesn’t.

    1. Well,stark assessment would kind of suggest that you can’t sell rebellion any more to young people, at least not in such a large-scale way, and I kind of buy that. In some ways it’s surprising that rebellion has lasted as long as it has since Ab Fab observed in the early 90’s that it was an irrelevant and faintly absurd concept to the children of 60’s rebels. And yet I took the campaign to be a bit more about a timeless youthful spirit, that you could buy into without necessarily rejecting every single aspect of commercial life. And maybe, like Richard says, it could have smouldered a bit more…

  5. You can make an argument that buying a pair of Levis will make you look good. But buying a pair of jeans that will make you “perennial with the earth”? Even if that phrase made sense, I’m not sure anyone’s buying THAT.

  6. John, this is a great provocatication. There is a ton more to say on the matter. But a quick thought from me. I can’t help thinking it was a great short film idea that the writer managed to persuade Levi’s to pay for. The task is to sell jeans. This does not answer that task. Winning film awards in Cannes are one thing, but selling premium products in Croydon is another.

  7. The problem for Levi’s is that they were and are dubbed a brand from the past, which is why they aren’t at the top of America’s youths shopping list unless it’s for a gift on fathers day. Whilst it uses nice cinematography, this ad not only doesn’t bring Levi’s into the modern era but cements it’s place in the past. The black and white and ‘BBC’ voice for the VO make this feel like the brand is saying goodbye. Not only did this not sell, but it exacerbated the problem for Levi’s. Advertising first and foremost needs to sell, if it doesn’t work it’s poor advertising. Why Levi’s ran with this is beyond me.

  8. Levi’s are still my go to brand. When they started out sourcing the making of their jeans to other countries. The cut of the jeans started to differ, depending on were they were made. Then they change the fabric of the jeans. These are the two biggest mistakes a company could have made.

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