Not your father's Levi's

When, exactly, will too much be enough in the world of advertising? How much sex and raunch can be used to sell products to the general population before consumers finally stand up and demand more from business?

In my inbox this morning, a friend emailed a link to the giant of the jeans world, Levi Strauss, and to their new Internet advertising campaign titled, "Unbutton Your Beast". Following the link, I came face to face with a pair of jeans, the crotch staring me in the face. I watched in disbelief as the crotch began bulging out. The fly unbuttoned and I was asked to "choose my beast", with the caveat that I was to choose wisely. Nine different animated characters from which to choose, each one with a different preset greeting, or with the option to record my own witty message. Nine different sexual innuendos aimed at teenagers and young adults, who are then encouraged to send the "beast" to anyone and everyone.

Sitting around the table brainstorming a new advertising campaign must be a difficult job. Long hours trying to come up with just the right slogan or ad that will send consumers flocking to a particular product must lead to a few crazy ideas being thrown around while everyone laughs hysterically. Eventually though, the men and women whose job it is to sell get back down to business, and think up ways to grab the attention of consumers. Which makes one wonder, why did no one at Levi Strauss stop this particularly offensive ad campaign before it left the frat house?

Robert Cameron, vice-president of marketing at Levi, told Brandweek magazine that the ad campaign is aimed at 18-24 year old males, and thinks that it is "pretty harmless" and "good clean fun". Good clean fun is the mark of BMW, using satire and Brooke Shields in their latest ads. Phallic symbols, as some of the animated creatures on the Levi Strauss site are, do not qualify as either good or clean.

The bigger issue with this ad campaign is the problem of using sex to sell just about everything. In passing a city bus recently, a large ad plastered on the side of the vehicle advertised a local radio station. The ad in question showed a woman unbuttoning her pants with the station's logo tattooed below her waistline. How the two are connected is hard to figure out, unless the radio station is trying to let listeners know they will be unable to remain clothed while tuned in to that station. Trying to explain to my eight year old why the lady in the picture was taking her pants off left me angry and frustrated, because I did not know why she was doing it and having to explain morality or the lack thereof before 9 am was not something I wanted to have to face.

There are those who will claim that the constant inundation of sexual images and innuendo have no effect on the day to day lives and choices of the general population, but this kind of slack morality is part of a vicious cycle that leads to the denigration of everyone. Bombarded by sex and what amounts to pornography, our children are growing up faster than they should. We wring our hands and wail about how kids today are mimicking adult behaviour, when what they should be doing is playing outside and having fun with their friends. Yet when it comes to the ads we see and hear that not only condone but push the envelope of common decency and good taste, we laugh and bury our heads in the sand pretending that the same messages we receive have somehow bypassed our children.

Using sex to sell products can affect adults as well. A large number of the women I know suffer from poor self-image, and are daily faced with nubile young things promoting lifestyles and bodies that are impossible to attain without starving themselves or working out six hours a day. Some people will say that it is neither the fault nor the responsibility of advertisers if women have problems feeling good about themselves, and to a point, I would agree. It is not Levi's fault if I put on a pair of their jeans and feel like a bloated toad and end up curled up on the floor of the dressing room, wailing about how no one will ever like me if I'm not thin enough. But, for those who do suffer from low self-esteem, having to see only the beautiful people day in and day out becomes a form of torture of which big business should be aware.

Taking it a step further, what about the target demographic for Levi Strauss' current ad campaign? Young men, aged 18 to 24, are generally considered to be the group that engages in high risk behaviour. How many times have young men in this age group been exposed to ads, movies or music that not only suggest, but glorify rape, murder, sex with multiple partners, drag racing or any other activity that could end with their arrest? This age group is the one about to enter marriage, parenthood and the workforce. Do we really want their brains muddled by advertisers who are only interested in the bottom line?

Levi's website states that the company has four core values: empathy, originality, integrity and courage. Empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others, begins with listening. Advertisers, and not just Levi Strauss, need to start paying attention to what consumers really want and not just what they think will get us to buy their products. Originality in advertising means appealing to the intelligence of consumers, not just our basest instincts. Integrity means standing behind your product. Levi assures that ethical conduct and social responsibility are the way they do business.

Promoting distasteful ads is neither ethical (in some places it could be considered sexual harassment, depending on the sensibilities of the person receiving the "Unbutton Your Beast" email), nor socially responsible. Being socially responsible means being aware of how your actions may affect others; this campaign is yet another example of how sex is minimalized in our society.

That no one at Levi seems to think this is a problem worth mentioning is a problem in and of itself. How do we teach our children that sex is an important part of a healthy relationship if we have spent years teaching them that nothing is off limits and that sex can and should be used as currency?

The world we live in is different from fifty years ago, no one disputes that. But half a century ago, selling products did not involve scantily clad men and women and provocative images intended to make consumers uncomfortable. Advertisers tried to appeal to our reasoning, our ethics and our humanity.

Courage, the last of Levi's core values, is the one thing that seems to be lacking, not just at Levi Strauss, but everywhere. Having the courage to go against the crowd, to stand up to the degradation of society and morals is hard. Sex is a private thing. It should not be used to sell things, and having the courage to stop using it at every turn is what consumers deserve.

Barbara Lilley is a writer and mother of four living in Ottawa, Canada


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