I quit watching television back in the days when using a piece of popular music (a Rolling Stones song, say) in a commercial was controversial. Back then a lot of artists believed it was selling out. Yet others considered it good exposure, and I know now it’s an accepted practice. In fact, up-and-coming artists strive to have songs placed in ads and television shows.
But … poetry?
I was still a little discombobulated when I was at the movie theater a while back (probably last year; I don’t get out much) and saw this commercial before the movie was screened. Um … what? You are marvelous; the gods wait to delight in you. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget. But this is an ad … for what? What are they selling? Oh, of course! Blue jeans. Go forth, the ad said.
The Irishman believes anything you want to know can be found on YouTube, and, sure enough, I found the ad, titled “Legacy,” which is part of an ongoing (sometimes controversial) ad campaign from Levi’s. It led me to the lovely poem by Charles Bukowski, “The Laughing Heart.”
YouTube also led me to other ads in the Go Forth campaign. This one is “America,” and utilizes a dramatic reading of Walt Whitman’s “America.” This one, “Braddock, PA,” taps into the same ethos as the other ads but uses anonymous (as best I can tell) ad copy:
We were taught how the pioneers went into the West. They opened their eyes and made up what things could be. 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. People think there aren’t frontiers anymore. They can’t see how frontiers are all around us.
Finally (or perhaps not; there may be more) we have “O Pioneers.” I know that poem. Walt Whitman again, and I wonder as I watch it for the first time, What does ol’ Walt think of this? (At least this one makes sense: Levi Strauss & Co. began making blue jeans in 1853 during the Westward expansion in the U.S., about the same time Walt Whitman was writing his poem celebrating it.)
This Forbes magazine article put its finger right on what bothers me about these ads:
“Legacy” marries protest imagery, emotive music, and the words of a literary underdog in an attempt to realize [a] vision of high commercial art. … And just as past campaigns have relied on the words of poets such as Walt Whitman, “Legacy” enlists the Charles Bukowski poem “The Laughing Heart” as a call to arms. Read by a narrator with a grizzled voice …, Bukowski’s words are instantly transformed into ad copy, becoming a lyrical ode to the art of jeans selection, boiling away the author’s artful intent and recontextualizing it as a sales pitch.
So it’s not just me. But then I think—It’s good to expose Americans to poetry.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”