In the book Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in Big Business Roland Marchand tells the story of how expanding corporations sought legitimacy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As corporations grew in size and scope their power in relation to the family, town and church grew as well. This led to fear of big business and created a “crisis of legitimacy” for American corporations. (pp.2) In their quest for social and moral legitimacy big businesses turned to public relations campaigns for both the public at large and their employees to shape what Marchand describes as the “corporate soul.” The PR campaigns launched by big businesses included corporate welfare programs, advertisements using imagery of the family and the idea of putting “profits second”, and an association with high culture.
This last approach of association with art and high culture caught my attention. I have been put off by a recent advertising approach which uses art in a way that I find inappropriate – Levi’s Jeans’ “Go_Forth” campaign.
Using a recording of Walt Whitman himself reading his poems "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and “America,” Levi’s shows flashing images of hipsters participating in a myriad of physical and often subtly sexual activities. The jeans themselves play only a secondary role in the ads. Levi’s is not talking up a new style or jean color. Rather, through art they are attempting to connect themselves with the young, educated, active, and liberal by trying to “spark in the viewer a yearning of the spirit that the product promises to satisfy.” (Brown, pp. 202).
These ads, which look more like an independent film movie trailer, are done well enough. The issue for me is not the quality or production value of the minute-and-a-half spots. The problem is it is inappropriate for Levi’s, or any other consumer corporation, to align themselves with art, poetry, or music which have cultural and social messages that have nothing to do with what is being sold. It is false to associate a product with cultural significance in this way. Walt Whitman’s poetry is not about Levi’s jeans or consumption
In an attempt to constantly position themselves as our friends, corporations overstep their cultural bounds and create falseness out of respected and cherished art. Their interpretations of art are insincere at best. Corporations do not have the right to associate themselves with high culture because mindless consumerism is the opposite of high culture.
The fact that corporations are seen as illegitimate participants in high culture and disingenuous contributors to our society shows that they are still a long way from gaining their corporate souls.