‘A Fuck-You World’: Levi’s, Bukowski and England’s Looters on the Run

[Editor’s Note: Edgy, youth-pandering advertising strategies had not yet been perfected at the time of this essay’s August 2011 posting.]

The counterculture will be co-opted, but not always without peril to the marketing department.

It’s a fuck-you world,” said American writer Charles Bukowski. Levi’s Jeans and Birmingham, England’s looters may want to console one another over just how apt this maxim can be.

When Levi’s Legacy crafted its “Go Forth” television commercial, mixing quick slaps of PG 13 erotica with icon-lite snippets of photogenic youths awash in chromatic tear gas, massing for street protests, standing off against walls of riot police, all driven by a narrator who intones Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” (opening lines: “your life is your life/don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission”), the clip must have been praised around the office as a genius melding of marketing and message.

Suddenly, real-life “hooded youths” mobbed through chromatic clouds of tear gas to shatter shop windows and cart off the very product the ads were meant to present as irresistible purchases.

Of course the ad primarily mongered jeans through sexualized ego pandering, but the spot’s denim-clad defiance echoed the courageous Arab Spring idealism admired in thousands of photos that had been saturating the Internet for months.

Unfortunately, before “Go Forth” was scheduled to debut on the BBC, 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by London police. Arson and looting flared in London’s Tottenham district, enflaming sections of Liverpool and Manchester, on to Birmingham and elsewhere.

Suddenly, Levi Legacy’s stylized young cop-baiters paled to the menace of real-life “hooded youths” who mobbed through chromatic clouds of tear gas to shatter shop windows and cart off the very product the ads were meant to present as irresistible purchases.

“Go Forth” dared not venture into British territory. (Never mind the probability that Bukowski—whose writing brutally, beautifully mocked consumerism and the slick artisans who propagandize it—is dry-heaving in his grave.) The Levi’s head office—which has a long public involvement in corporate responsibility—pulled the contextually inflammatory commercials from U.K. time slots.

Birmingham’s hooded insurrectionists may argue that they were only acting on the dictum that finishes up Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” (“be on the watch./the gods will offer you chances./know them./take them.”), but the city’s cops have no ear for the poetry of rebellion. Police officials have posted names and home addresses of captured looters on Twitter, and Birmingham vigilantes are reportedly armed and patrolling for vengeance against the rioters.

Those inspired vandals who saw the gods’ chances and took them don’t have Levi’s option of extracting their actions from the institutional memory; they do have the offer of solace from a few more lines of Bukowski: “there is a light somewhere./it may not be much light but/it beats the darkness.

Allan MacDonell Administrator
Director of Skeeve Allan MacDonell is the author of ‘Prisoner of X’ and ‘Punk Elegies.’
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