The billboard is arresting. As I drive down Boulevard of the Allies, a postwar mini-highway that runs along the south edge of Pittsburgh, I look up at the giant image of six-year-old old Jarral People, an African-American child, adjusting the collar of his dad’s faded denim shirt. His father, twenty-three year old Anthony Price, is looking down at his son and holding back his own hair—a massive mane of narrow dreads. They are both beautifully lit in this black and white photo and seemingly caught in a tender family moment. A caption runs across the photo that says WE ARE ALL WORKERS. And, in the corner, in red, there is the iconic, 150 year old Levis logo.
Yes, this is a Levis ad. And what is more, it was shot in Braddock, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh: a ghost town with 3,000 residents, boarded-up buildings, and crushing poverty—though it was once a thriving metropolis of 20,000. Levis partnered with Braddock earlier this year to produce a unique and perhaps unprecedented advertising campaign.
According to Levi company press releases, the advertising firm that created Levi’s Go Forth campaign, the Portland based Wieden+Kennedy, noticed a profile of Braddock’s young mayor, John Fetterman, in The Atlantic magazine issue on “25 Brave Thinkers” of 2009. They approached Fetterman with the idea of making Braddock the centerpiece of their advertising campaign with slogans like “Real People + Real Work = Real Change” and “Everybody’s Work is Equally Important.” They offered Braddock one million dollars in aid to help with restoring the historic Carnegie Library in Braddock, the Braddock community center, and Braddock’s urban farm. Finally, they partnered with IFC Channel and Sundance to make eleven exquisite “mini-films” about the town, featuring the key development issues in the town. In return, the people of Braddock would wear the new line of Levis jeans and pose for (and get paid for) photo shoots doing the “real work” of roofing, farming and neighborhood revitalization.
The criticisms of this campaign have been many, loud, and angry. There are at least three lines of argument against Levis and Fetterman for this partnership. First, from within Braddock itself, veteran filmmaker Tony Buba—who has made Braddock the star of virtually all of his films and political activism for thirty years—complains that few of the models in the Braddock/Levis campaign look like anyone who still lives in Braddock. “I never knew there were that many thin people in Braddock until I watched those spots — or that many people with six-pack abs. You don’t see anybody 300 pounds and wearing a pair of Levi’s jeans walking across the screen.” Another critic of the campaign, long time Braddock City Councilman Jesse Brown, has never been a fan of mayor Fetterman: “Him and I don’t see eye to eye. For some reason he’s come to Braddock which is a predominantly Afro-American community that he seems want to be the– the white savior for this community and I just feel different.”
The second and most frequently voiced criticism of the Levis campaign is that it doesn’t bring any Levis jobs to Braddock—or anywhere else in the United States. Of the 40 blog sites and news stories that I reviewed about the ad campaign, most excoriated Levis for taking its denim garment production overseas and for cynically using the still-unemployed people of Braddock as models for clothing they probably could never afford without the Levis campaign.
The third criticism of the Braddock campaign focuses on Levis’ treatment of workers in Third World countries. According to anti-capitalist author and blogger Christopher Lehmann of theawl.com, Levis has suppressed the efforts of its Haitian and Mexican jeans-makers to organize a union, and in Taiwan and Turkey Levis waste chemicals are polluting water and people. According to the French news show Envoyé Spécial, 44 Turkish workers in a jeans plant have died from silicosis—contracted while using a specific technique to distress Levis and H&M jeans.
These criticisms strike me as enormously valid; I am especially sickened by the revelation of Levis’ international crimes. When garment workers are mistreated in places like Lesotho, Taiwan, or factory towns in Egypt and Turkey, it seems clear that leaving worker protections to these individual states is wrong. I also agree that it would be much better if Levis would commit to bringing “real jobs” to those so-called “real workers” in Braddock.
At the same time—and maybe I was just born with a counter-intuitive brain—I am willing to consider some arguments in favor of the Levis/Braddock partnership. First of all, the partnership has brought Braddock an avalanche of press and attention. Googling Levis and Braddock produces nearly a half a million results. Moreover, most of these blog posts and articles are sympathetic to Braddock’s plight (though not to Fetterman’s Faustian bargain), and they see Braddock as part of a broken system—rather than an isolated case.
Second, some residents of Braddock are grateful for the attention and support that Levis has provided. Of course, Fetterman is especially articulate on the project’s behalf, but he is not alone. For example, an African-American Braddock resident, Deanne Dupree, age twenty three, who lost her job as a hospital housekeeper when UPMC closed its Braddock branch earlier this year, was thrilled to model for the Levis campaign: “A lot of people told me I should [go into modeling], but I told them I would need a contact and some money first. I never looked into it until this came along, but now I’m so excited about it.”
Finally, there is the bizarrely radical message of the ads themselves. Certainly no Levis advertising strategist has read In Between Labour and Capital with the seminal essay by Barbara and John Ehrenreich on “The Professional Managerial Class,” but one way to understand Marxist class theory is to believe that “we are all workers.” Even the high-salaried advertisers at Wieden+Kennedy are not “owners.” And it’s pretty weird having a beautifully shot billboard advertising this fact on the Boulevard of the Allies. One half of me wants to reject it, for being the apotheosis of cynical corporate marketing—how Levis has turned one of America’s most ravaged landscapes into a surreal branding opportunity. But part of me is simply stunned by the beauty of the Braddock residents, and what I believe to be the rightness of at least two of the campaign slogans. Most of us are workers—not owners. And everyone’s work is equally important. Now, if only these were the slogans of a progressive political party, instead of Levis.
Kathy M. Newman
Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.