30 August 2010

Glenn Beck & Levi's: Co-opting the Blue Collar

Turns out Glenn Beck is not the only one guilty of misappropriating Americana. For the past few years, the glorification of some supposed Steinbeckian blue collar-ishness has been the hipster soup du jour. Pop into any number of ├╝ber hip boutiques just dying to appear provincial and unassuming, and pick yourself up a $200 flannel shirt, or some $300 "work" boots, or an $80 candle that smells like a horse's ass.  On your way out, be sure to pick up some old-timey looking candy for the kiddies that are waiting back at the homestead with Ma.

I grew up in this preciously idealized, rural America. You know, the one whose rustic fashions we love but political ideals we hate? I assure you, there is nothing fashionable about it. Men who work their hands raw from sunup to sundown in the summer and then stand, shamefully, in the winter unemployment line to help feed their families have no interest in being the fashion icons of the privileged and disillusioned. The kids who cultivated a sophisticated palette for government cheese twenty years ago are not likely to be the ones dropping $100 on long underwear for the sheer quaintness of it all. And I can tell you firsthand, it's not because we can't afford them. It's because it's asinine and uneducated. Turns out, reading that used copy of Tortilla Flat with the sweet looking cover design is not a valid education in the ways of blue collar America. 

And, contrary to what they would have you think, neither is watching one of Levi's commercials about Braddock, PA. Here is the gist of Levi's new add campaign: "We are all workers. Workers wear jeans. Buy our jeans! We are going to rebuild Braddock and steal your hearts in the process." Here are some of the more obvious flaws in this concept.

1. First and foremost, we are not all workers. A lot of the hallowed 18-35 market is actually impressively lazy and entitled and would get their asses handed to them by the two dudes pictured above. This photo/tagline combo is not the icon of grit and honor Levi's aimed at. It's cheap and condescending. 

2. Yes, many blue collar workers wear jeans. Zero blue collar workers wear $100 jeans. They wear $20 jeans that they bought on sale, and they use the remaining $80 to pay their bills and buy groceries...with the coupons they have been clipping for a week.

3. Giving a town a million dollars for a community center and paying a few sexy poor people for a one-off photo shoot does not constitute rebuilding it. This is basic "teach a man to fish" logic. Opening a Levi's factory with hundreds of sustainable jobs and adding disposable income to a dried up, small town, manufacturing-based economy, well, that would actually be a damn good start to rebuilding. Of course, you would have to pay your sexy (and unsexy alike) poor people of Pennsylvania much more than you pay your crew in Macau.

There really is not much difference between the premise of Levi's new campaign and the premise of the entire Glenn Beck brand. You take some hyper-American images and ideals. You co-opt them for a message that is blatantly incongruous with history, truth, etc. You fudge the history and remake the truth. People believe you, because it looks good; they are uninformed; they are too lazy to become informed; and you are very, very good at marketing. They buy your product, and you somehow come off looking like a do-gooder to your followers. 

I'm not saying that doing some good isn't better than doing no good. Obviously, it is better. So, Levi's gets a gold star for not doing absolutely no good at all with their billions and billions of dollars. But can we please all muster a little self respect and call a spade a spade here? Don't get me wrong, I buy Levi's jeans, (the $40 ones, when they are on sale, and yes, the tag says "Made in Macau") but I don't in any way pretend that's a favor to anyone but myself and my 34 inch inseam.  And I certainly don't do it in honor of some America that I do not understand. I have spent many a day diggin' in the dirt, worked my way through college and across the country, and abandoned my childhood penchant for government cheese a long time ago. And I count myself lucky to have started my life exactly where and how I did.

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