Iconic Ads: Levi’s: 501 Blues

The iconic “Levi’s® 501® Blues” campaign launched during the summer of 1984, pairing blues music with scenes of young people enjoying life.

It’s reasonable to assume that advertising had a significant role in Levi’s success. Foote, Cone & Belding’s San Francisco office developed, guarded, and polished an American icon: Levi’s Jeans.

Mike Koelker, an FCB copywriter who began working on the account in the early 1970s and subsequently served as executive creative director was astute and determined. He put Levi’s Jeans first in his career, neglecting other management responsibilities and clients. Koelker recognized the brand’s soul and battled for it.

Bob Haas, the great-grandnephew of business founder Levi Strauss, who was chosen CEO in 1984, and Koelker had a special relationship. Haas built a company that emphasized collaboration and agreement. At six o’clock in the evening, Haas would stroll across Levi’s Plaza to FCB to hang out with Koelker. They discussed everything. Koelker was known to come up unexpectedly to Haas’ office to work out marketing issues.

According to reports, Koelker assisted Haas in running the company in various respects. The typical barriers that an agency confronts were removed because of Koelker’s particular connection with Haas. The relationship was so close that if Mike decided to run a campaign, it would be carried out according to his plans.

Koelker was well-versed in trends and had a knack for foreseeing what would happen next. In terms of where the culture was heading, he worked outside of it to some extent.

The Challenge

Koelker and his creative collaborator, art director Leslie Caldwell, were given a challenge by Levi’s in 1984. They had to reposition the 501 jeans, which were then closely associated with cowboy imagery.

Koelker & Caldwell travelled to the rough streets of urban America with a cast of ordinary-looking actors and a range of musical styles. The Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection now includes his groundbreaking “501 Blues” campaign.

Koelker later wrote, “What we were trying to say with the `501 Blues’ was, whoever you are, you’re OK. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, or thin or fat, or athletic or in a wheelchair. You’re OK,”.

The Commercials

The “501 Blues” commercials presented something new in the world of television commercials. Young individuals just doing their thing in their Levi’s jeans while listening to bluesy music and being filmed using the now-familiar “shaky camera” style. They were a tremendous hit, and they contributed to the jeans’ and brand’s popularity.

The director was Leslie Dektor.

Dektor’s 501 commercials, with the theme “Got To Be Real,” were created to appeal largely to the line’s core clients, defined as young males aged 15 to 24, who appreciated the button-fly, straight-leg 501 characteristics.

He had a very distinct filming technique. He would set up his camera with a long lens so that it was at least across the street, if not further away from the subjects.

The actors would be told to take a break by the him “All you have to do is stay on set. The camera is being reloaded.” However, no one realized at the time, was that he was shooting while reloading the camera.

This unique approach allowed him to catch young kids performing spontaneously, and viewers responded positively.

Apart from its presence in Smithsonian, it won many awards and sales went through the roof.

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