By Hatti Sudell
Descending to the BART at 16th Street and Mission earlier this semester I was confronted with ‘THE MODERN FRONTIER’. Plastered all around the station platform, white letters on black boards, the new Levi’s advertising campaign declared in no uncertain terms that the frontier was here… Again.
As an international exchange student taking a class on the American West this fall, I was particularly excited to see my studies playing out in real life. (No matter how hard you try to avoid those midterms, there’s nothing quite like seeing one of your key words spelled out in 2 foot high letters to force you to recall the context and significance). So in short, despite Frederick Jackson Turner declaring in 1893 that the Frontier was closed, history has taught us that the West had an enduring allure. The characteristics of the Frontier, the rugged individualism it created and the escapism it stood for, have created a mythical West that has been successfully commodified in different forms over time: Cowboys and Indians, Hollywood, even the constructed utopia of Disneyland.
And according to Levi’s, it’s an ideal that still very much sells today. As a San Franciscan brand Levi’s defines itself by its 1850s Western roots, with marketing to match. 1960s billboards proclaimed that ‘The West Grew Up in Levis’ and more recently the 2009-2011 campaigns encouraged the average American to ‘Go Forth’, unequivocally recalling Turner’s specifically ‘frontier spirit’ in times of economic uncertainty. The physical frontier may cease to exist but Turner must have been right in his analysis of its ‘transformation’ of the American character. Levi’s continues to successfully tap into its mythical heritage of the rugged American individual.
A clever concept, but isn’t it a bit ironic that this all-American company ‘went forth’ itself and outsourced the entirety of its production back in 2003? Is the frontier we are so willingly being sold along with our indigo cotton-twill pants simply a shallow advertising technique from just another multinational company?
Well, perhaps not. Ethically, Levi’s often tops lists of sustainable business and a quick trip to its website reveals its commitment to people, planet and product. The truly ‘Western’ nature of the company? Well, Levi’s is smart. Yes its marketing campaigns suggest a false reality (whose don’t?) but this only works because we believe it on some level. The West is actually the most industrialised part of the United States; historically big business and federal government pushed out the rural homesteader, and it continues to be one of the most expensive places to live in the country. But ideologically, spiritually, culturally, it is the location in the American imagination where anything is possible. Of course we’re not about to buy a pair of 501s and jump onto the next covered wagon westward, but the jeans represent more than that; they are a little slice of the ‘frontier spirit’ packaged up to take home and live out in our normal lives. The Levi’s marketing dream of the carefree-topless-woman-in-muddy-jeans-frolicking-across-the-Great-Plains may not be reality, but reality is about following the dream.
So are we really able to ‘Go Forth’? As a European outsider at the edge of Western life, a new frontierswoman of my own, I guess I should be able to judge. And it certainly seems that the land of possibility exists here at Berkeley, or at least the promise of it. Cal Bears work hard and dream harder, forging their own future for post-college life in a way that is unfamiliar to the European model of a heavily-government-subsidised further education system. Extra credits may be taken and summers spent studying in order to graduate early, there is a much greater focus on individual input in class, (students can even run their own classes), people wear suits to careers fair (really though) and the innumerable business fraternities/start-ups/investment groups on campus add useful lines to the already lengthy resume.
The Levi’s campaign works because it appeals to the mythical past, the fantasy future, and now, the present day.
Maybe it’s just this school, or maybe there is something in the Western water, but if this is the modern frontier, I’m certainly buying it.
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