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Walk Like a Mannequin

The new Levi's ad campaign speaks to corporate America's secret wish to turn us all into dummies.
 
 
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I'm not sure if there's a name yet for the disease I have, but I'm sure it will appear in the literature soon. I'm an advertising addict. Not because I like it – quite to the contrary. Most of the time, I'm absolutely horrified by it, to the point where it keeps me awake at night, and unable to stay in urban areas for more than four or five days at a time.

But I'm also totally obsessed with the advertising business and religiously consume almost every industry magazine or newsletter about the people who run it. I follow it with the same unhealthy fascination that makes me a hopeless sports fan. I even have favorite idols - players in the industry that I follow with alarming devotion. I'm about two years away from building shrines in my closet and inspiring new corollaries to the stalker laws.

One of my favorite players is having a great Barry Bonds-like summer. I'm talking about Thomas Hayo, creative director for the New York shop of the British agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, usually referred to as BBH in the biz. Hayo and his group have come up with the ultimate anthem to one of the most chilling and demented new trends in advertising – the more-human-than-human, mannequins-are-people movement. His "Urban Legend" spot for Levi's is also one of the first truly scary (as in intentionally scary) television ads in recent memory. And it gets even scarier when you think about what it means.

But first, an introduction to Hayo/BBH. A few years ago, the New York office came up with one of the industry's great masterpieces of celebrity humiliation: a campaign for Lipton's failed line of shitty instant meals, Sizzle n' Stir, with the tagline: "When you cook, you're a family." The ads featured aging C-list entertainers playing the roles of spoiled teenagers in a painful send-up of the '50s-style cozy family dinner that, of course, no longer exists today.

Sizzle N' Stir puts lovable Dad Mr. T in the mood for dumpy white blonde Mom; cheeky sis Mary Lou Retton joshes bashful bro George Hamilton about having a girlfriend; plastic surgery victim Little Richard and ex-Japanese person Pat Morita fight over how to set the table for the hideous meal ("There," says Richard, putting down one fork, "I helped!"). Fake people eating fake food in a doomed attempt to recapture an extinct lifestyle – a beautiful message all around.

BBH also did some admirably hysterical anti-drug work (you might remember the gross-out spot in which blood starts pouring out of the hot high school chick's nose during math class).

But the agency's real tour de force before this summer's scary "Urban Legend" ad was the Axe antiperspirant campaign. Like the Sizzle N' Stir spot, the Axe ad opens as a self-conscious spoof of goofy fifties marketing: dumb blonde spokesmodel on stage, wildly gesticulating with deodorant product in hand, next to a scrawny male mannequin who is naked except for his boxers.

Blonde says: "Here's a new deodorant called Axe. Spray it under your arms and across your chest to stay fresh all day long!"

As she proceeds to spray excessive amounts of deodorant on the mannequin, another blonde pops in from offstage and goes to take the mannequin's arm. Suddenly the first blonde freaks out in an angry Aretha Franklin voice: "I KNOW you ain't touching my mannequin!"

The other blonde backs off. Cue the logo and the saucy Don Pardo voice-over: "Axe. The smell the ladies love!"

This is a seriously funny ad that on the surface is gently poking fun at the business of selling.

But part of BBH's stated "philosophy" is to rely on "big ideas" that are "rooted in a fundamental truth." Well, they were on to a "big idea" in the Axe ad: the advertising industry's own Frankenstein-like love for the store mannequin.

By the time the Axe campaign was launched, the ad business had already been playing around with the idea of turning mannequins into people.

The first significant living-mannequin ad was a spot called "Cheryl N' Me," developed by a little San Francisco-based shop called Black Rocket for Conde Nast's Lucky magazine. The 90-second cinema ad tells the story of a woman whose best friend, Cheryl, is a bald mannequin she likes to take shopping. To the chords of a sunny folk song (lyric: "Cheryl and Me ... My best friend was a mannequin!"), the two have a blast shopping together – although they sometimes have to deal with occasional hurdles, as when Cheryl gets caught in a revolving door and loses her arms to an oncoming taxi.

But it all goes downhill when the woman finds out that her boyfriend has been banging Cheryl. Her new "shopping friend": Lucky magazine.

"Cheryl and Me" was a signature piece of writer/director Bob Kerstetter, who is one of those types you see a lot in the advertising world: goatee, sweatpants, studied slovenliness. He's the kind that uses lofty artist language to describe his work ("People were beginning to take me seriously as a director"), and goes to bed at night wondering how Fellini would have sold olives. One of those trailblazers leading us down the road to the inevitable future where art and commerce are indistinguishable. So it's fitting that the mannequin innovation owes so much to him.

"Cheryl and Me" were followed by a horde of new mannequin spots. The Dryel detergent spot had a department store mannequin that came to life at night and headed to the appliance department to do its laundry. Another New York shop, Merkley and Partners, did a creepy ad called "Mannequins" for Daimler-Chrysler in which an army of high-fashion mannequins meanders Living-Dead style to a Mercedes showroom in the middle of the night.

These were but pale precursors to "Urban Legend," the BBH Levi's ad that came out this July. The premise of the spot is simple and elegant: Man goes to store, removes pair of Levi's from mannequin, buys the pants and leaves. The mannequin is pissed off and follows the man as he drives through the rain to his house.

As the man falls asleep on his couch in front of the television, we see the corpse-white mannequin lurking outside the window. Lightning flashes as Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I put a spell on you" plays in the background. The last shot is a menacing POV deal in which we see the mannequin staring directly down at the Levi's-clad crotch of the sleeping, defenseless man.

We know that the mannequin is going to take his pants back, but we're not so sure what else he plans to do.

If you read Hayo's comments about his new Levi's spots (which also include "Walk," a man-chooses-pants-over-ex-girlfriend story set to the discordantly haunting tune of Willie Nelson's "You were always on my mind"), you know that what the agency wants to communicate the "special bond" between the Levi's wearer and his jeans. It is the jeans that Willie Nelson regrets treating wrong, the jeans that even a store mannequin must come to life to reclaim.

But there is another, more frightening dimension to "Urban Legend." The directing style is an obvious homage to thirties horror films, but without being ironic or a send-up – it's really scary. If Frankenstein was about a scientist's terrible desire to escape human limits, all these mannequin ads hint at something similar: the consumer industry's secret wish to be free of the human unpredictability of the buying public. Companies would perhaps rather we were all mannequins – posable, insatiable platforms for products.

It's no accident that man in the Levi's ad falls asleep in front of the TV to the tune of "I put a spell on you" - leaving helpless and vulnerable. It's Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the consumer age. Levi's-hungry mannequins eat our brains at night, so we can wake up in the morning and buy, buy, buy.

Or maybe it's just a cool-looking ad with jeans.

BBH, I salute you. You scare the hell out of me.