Levis & Braddock: Exploitation or Visibility?

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.

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13 responses to “Levis & Braddock: Exploitation or Visibility?

  1. Pingback: Learning from Teaching about Braddock | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. Advertising Guy

    Thank you for the thoughtful article on this campaign. As an ad strategist who worked on this campaign, I just wanted you to know that I have read “In Between Labour and Capital” and studied Maxist theory, from Marx himself to Althusser. Take my word for this, the Marxist message was intended, even if Levi’s was not aware of it. I do agree with some of the criticisms that this could partnership could be seen as cynical. And it’s something we discussed quite a bit. But we felt it would be better to do something, even something as small as making an investment in the community and drawing attention to it, than to simply run another ad about jeans and fashion. As one of your commenters points out, that many of us Critical Theory majors end up in advertising. It’s a living, as the exploited dinosaurs used to say on the Flintstones. I will admit it often causes existential conflicts to be in this business. Because advertising yields nothing productive to society beyond creating positional goods through spectacle. And the desire to acquire these positional goods are one of the causes of many economic problems that Americans face. That said, working on this campaign–visiting frequently with the people of Braddock and hearing their stories, and having the conversations with Mayor Fetterman where we felt his passion for the community–was work I’ve done where I could at least feel like we were putting a message out there that meant something, was somewhat radical and perhaps contributed something to the community. Yes. If only we could have done it without the need to market a brand and its products–for the purposes of corporate growth. But unfortunately, that’s the society we live in, a society where colonisation has not finished, but where flags have been replaced with corporate badges, a hyper-capitalist society driven by a single-minded need for corporate growth. In such a society, if we can–even in a small way–subvert advertising, that’s an accomplishment. A small one, but one nonetheless. Again thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

  3. Pingback: “We are All Workers” « Grace as a Tree

  4. Pingback: Something Rotten » Blog Archive » Advertising and better companies

  5. I appreciate everyone’s comments—and Eric, I think you make an excellent point about the likely reading material of the super hip advertisers in Portland! I’m still torn about the campaign, and thus I appreciate those comments that condemn as well as those that acknowledge the potential benefits of the partnership.

  6. Jan: let me understand this: a library is a means to quell worker unrest?!? A library is a way to workers who can then better advocate for themselves and others. I am baffled by those who criticise this project. All the money goes towards community and building a much-needed community center. You know, a place for members of the community to take classes, receive tutoring, get health care, etc… There are people who are angry no matter what John Fetterman does, but the guy keeps getting elected.

    • It is historical fact that Carnegie built the library as a way to quiet worker unrest making them less likely to form unions and fight for better wages and working conditions. It was hard for workers who worked twelve hour days six days a week in brutal conditions to find time to read. Of course it is good for folks to have free libraries, but my point is that philanthropy has a down side. It makes people grateful for the gift and reluctant to work for their own rights against those who control the wealth.

      Yes, the community will benefit from a community center, but the Braddock Library and Community Center has serving as a community center for over 100 years and could serve residents much better if it had an endowment. There are pottery classes, there is tutoring, etc. There is a gym. There could be a reopened pool. Why duplicate services is my point? Why not work with long time community residents and organizations to improve what the Library/Community Center and other existing agencies have to offer?

    • Yes, Coco, Andrew Carnegie used the libraries to suppress worker organizing. Later, he would leave the situation for Scotland and allow Henry Clay Frick to hire agents shoot the Homestead furnace workers who were trying to organize a strike.

      Trader Joe’s uses a similar philanthropic mode of suppression. By offering part timers benefits, which is good, TJ’s creates the power to suppress union organizing by the employees. If you even whisper “union” at TJ’s, you can and likely will be fired, and all the employees know this. So, like Levi’s, TJ offers a “gift” of benefits rather than entering int oa contract that would force them to. Meanwhile, Levi’s and TJ’s underpay their “other” workers (TJ’s is paying sweatshop wages for tomato pickers and refuses to negotiate; Levi’s uses sweatshops as its primary labor force).

      Fetterman rides the same wave, creating a mythology of philanthropy around himself, while shutting down anyone who proposes something different than his project. He refuses to collaborate with the people who have been working in Braddock far longer than he has. It’s megalomania, all around, and people’s anger about this isn’t about hating on Fetterman any chance we get: it’s about repeatedly dictatorial behavior that repeatedly infuriates us.

      When opposition is cast as some sort of personal emotional problem, as you portray it here, this also an act of suppression of dissent. Who benefits from such suppression? Those in power who rule un-democratically.

      Why was Fetterman re-elected? Because he puts himself in front of any camera that will listen, and spins the issues like a maestro.

      Maybe we need less counter-intuitive gesturing and more unflagging demands for economic freedom for all? Accepting Levi’s money accepts the continuation of the system that keeps corporations giant indomitable entities capable of acting with impunity.

      I fear that the “counter-intuitive thinking” in this article stems from our collective learned helplessness in the face of corporations.

  7. Kathy,

    A couple of thoughts. First, there is an ironic silver lining to the Levi’s campaign: Levi’s unintentionally brought scrutiny of its overseas labor practices upon itself with this series of ads. This probably would not have happened had Levi’s not done the ads. Second, I have no doubt that, in spite of all big-picture theoretical concerns, Mayor John Fetterman made the right choice in allowing this to happen. It’s very easy to criticize him for allowing Braddock to be co-opted by an exploitative system (which is certainly the nature of the relationship between Braddock and Levi’s, for what it’s worth–which is to say, not much, other than an A+ in Armchair Analysis 101), but reality is what it is, and a million bucks is a million bucks. Refusing Levi’s offer would have given a few people a brief moment of smug satisfaction, but would not have helped the people of Braddock in the least. The ad campaign at least helped them temporarily and brought them a few minutes of media attention.

    Finally, I rather doubt your assertion that “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.’” You don’t think so? What do you think this generation of professional propagandists reads? What do you think happens to people who major in Cultural Studies or Working Class Studies or American Studies and then don’t go into academia? Easy–they go into advertising, just like most of the cream of our graphic artists, writers, filmmakers, and other artists and intellectuals of a humanities-studies bent. Because that’s where the money is, and very few people buy into the mythos or lifestyle of the starving artist or philosopher these days. And thanks to the tireless efforts of leftists academics, this generation of bourgeoisie is not ignorant of the Frankfurt School–they just exploit that type of analysis to help themselves get rich. Viva la Revolucion.

  8. Since the 1880s when Andrew Carnegie built his first library-community center for the citizens of Braddock as a way of quelling worker unrest, corporations, politicians and foundations have divided the citizens of Braddock and distracted them from radical political organizing through philanthropy. The Levi project is just one more distraction. A few people paid for their work, a few others seduced by dreams of stardom. As for the million dollars, John Fetterman and his non-profit group (a three member board with no long time Braddock residents) decided where the money would go. There was no community input, so he too is a philanthropist. The Braddock Carnegie Library-Community Center, which has been serving residents for over 100 years, received $30,000. The Braddock Garden received $50,000 and the rest is going to the Mayor’s building for community center right across from the Braddock Library.
    Finally, black and white film is seductive and the citizens of Braddock certainly are beautiful when well lit and hand picked, but will this campaign result in anything than 15 minutes of fame for Braddock? As one 70 year old life long African American Braddock resident said, “There is always money to be made taking pictures of poor people.” Please don’t romanticize the poor. Come to Braddock and walk the streets. It’s not a “ghost town,” but it’s definitely not a Levi’s ad.

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  10. It seems there are some real racial rifts in Braddock. It would be interesting to hear if the councilman’s concerns about Fetterman and the other “white saviors” who have moved to the area are shared by other residents of the African American community.

  11. I generally like your take on this, but I have to disagree about the use of “We are all workers.” They’re obscuring Marx’s class analysis by implying that merchant princes and wage slaves are equals when they’re wearing Levis.

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