John Hillcoat’s Regrettable Levi’s Commercial

Director John Hillcoat, he of The Road and The Proposition fame, has crafted a Levi’s commercial that’s getting some rave reviews on the web. Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells has even gone so far as to call it “the best Hillcoat ever,” and while I’ll admit the spot is not without a certain poetic quality, I nevertheless abhor the thing. My reasons, and the commercial, after the jump.

The first thing that chafes about it is that Hillcoat deigned to do it at all. I know my attitude will likely be perceived as fustian and unrealistic, but I really can’t stand it when filmmakers (or musicians, or artists, or actors) agree to hawk corporate wares. Time was, you’d get called a “sell out” for such things. Now Jack White writes a jingle for Coke and nobody bats and eye. I’m with Tom Waits, who summed the issue up very nicely by stating, “If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn’t he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?”

The other thing that galls me about the piece has to do with its location. The ad makes a point of telling you (twice) that it was filmed in Braddock, Pa. Why Braddock? Well, for decades it’s been an economically troubled town owing to the collapse of the steel industry and an epidemic of gang activity. In 2008, house values hovered around 6,000 and there were only two stores in the entire town. Lately, however, there’s been something of an artistic renaissance in Braddock, thanks largely to Mayor John Fetterman, who’s refurbished homes, started youth programs, and enticed artists to relocate to Braddock with the promise of cheap rents. The voice over in the piece, spoken by a child, obliquely explains the situation: “A long time ago, things got broken here. People got sad and left. Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so we can have work to do.”

Apparently Levi’s wants to be associated with the “work” of this small-town struggling to make an economic recovery. It’s an “up from the bootstraps” vibe that they’re after, and who knows, it may well move a lot of jeans. What I find bothersome, if not hypocritical, in Levi’s choice of Braddock, is that it’s a town that was nearly eradicated because of disappearing jobs—the Monongahela River valley around Pittsburgh (which Braddock is basically a suburb of) lost some thirty thousand of them during the 80’s alone. Now, while I think it’s all well and good that Levi’s is currently donating money ($2million) to Braddock’s redevelopment, and casting its residents in their commercials for top dollar, I can’t help but be reminded that Levi’s spent the 90’s closing down all of its North American factories, eliminating jobs aplenty in favor of cheap(er) overseas labor. So why aren’t they shooting commercials and funneling money into the communities they’ve affected themselves? You know, other places where the world broke “on purpose?”

To my thinking, this is a clear case of the problem masquerading as the solution. Levi’s feel-good community assistance in Braddock must perforce be considered along side their other, less wholesome corporate practices, and especially their less than spotless reputation with respect to labor conditions abroad. (Google “Levi’s” and “sweatshop” if you need examples.) And when you see those print ads featuring Braddock residents and the slogan, “Everybody’s Work is Equally Important”, don’t believe it. I’m pretty sure Levi’s doesn’t.

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