Levi’s 501 – The story behind Launderette

The opening bars of Marvin Gaye’s hit I Heard It Through The Grapevine are among the most evocative in television advertising history. For a whole generation, at least, those first few moody seconds only bring one image to mind – that of model Nick Kamen walking into a launderette. The ad might not have been set in the eighties (more likely a mythical fifties), but for many those first few seconds can evoke memories of an entire decade. But Nick Kamen (who only got the part on condition he lost weight) wasn’t the first to get his kit off in a launderette. An early Hamlet ad showed a bowler-hatted, be-suited gent undressing in front of a group of women and sticking his clothes, and even his hat, in a washing machine. Sadly, no one remembers the actor’s name. And, as far as we know, he never had a hit single written for him by Madonna…

Kamen’s “Lauderette” was shown for the first time on Boxing Day 1985. Thought up by John Hegarty and Barbara Noakes of BBH, the ad campaign was designed to try and save Levi’s flagging fortunes; the company was under attack from all sorts of other fashionable brands. In short, Levi’s (which had been going since the 1850s) were becoming the sort of jeans worn by people’s dads. And not even trendy dads – it was middle-aged “fuddy duddies” wearing “polyester Levi’s Action Slacks”. Research showed that the intended target audience for Levi’s 501 (15 to 19 year olds) saw the United States of the fifties and sixties as cool time and place in history: James Dean, Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke all belonged to this mythical, wondrous world. Unless the ad agencies came up with something new, the alternative was going with the American campaign for 501, which was all about how well the jeans fitted in the United States of Ronald Reagan. The image seemed the opposite of MTV and European chic.

So, director Roger Lyons was given the go-ahead to film an ad that showed drop dead gorgeous model Nick Kamen stripping down to his boxer shorts, while flustered women and bemused elders looked on, and then sitting and waiting while his jeans were in the wash. All this and Marvin Gaye thrown in too. (Except it wasn’t actually Marvin Gaye but a newly recorded “session” version of the song, though the original was later re-released off the back of the ad and entered the charts all over again…). “Grapevine” was the first of four Levi’s-related songs to all make the Top Ten, a feat that made advertisers realise that choosing the right music was of paramount importance because it really could help push a product on TV. They call it “Integrated Marketing”, and it meant a single in the chart and an ad on the box simultaneously, as well as the 501 logo alongside the artist’s name on the record sleeve in every record shop in Britain and USA.

Kate Thornton, a famous English journalist, was a schoolgirl at the time and remembers the effect that Kamen’s striptease had on her: “I remember that the ad was running at a cinema before a movie, and I hadn’t seen it on the tely at that point. So I went to the cinema just to see the ad…” she says. “The commercial made those jeans sexy at a time when Levi’s were struggling to make their product appealing to women of my age, and really that’s where the big spenders come from. Suddenly those jeans became a must-heve item! I only wanted them because Nick Kamen wore them and took them off…”

Thornton wasn’t the only teenager to feel that away. Consumers wrote in to Levi’s in their thousands asking for picture of Kamen. Meanwhile, sales of 501 shot up by an incredible 800% in the wake of the ad, which eventually had to be taken off the air because the Company couldn’t produce enough jeans to meet the new demand… By 1987 sales of Levi’s jeans were reported to be 20 times what they had been just three years earlier. The commercial also boosted sales of boxer shorts to a record high, though the ad agency only put Kamen in a pair of boxers because they weren’t allowed to show their hero in a pair of jockeys. And it wasn’t just teenage girl buying the jeans: boys were impressed by what Kamen could do. “The ad said: wear Levi’s jeans and you’ll be a rebel without a cause!” says psychologist Dr David Lewis. “You’ll be able to alienate older people (who young people despite anyway) and you can be cool…”

Inevitably, Nick Kamen was suddenly flavour of the month. Madonna wrote a song for him called “Each Time You Break My Heart” which made it into Top Ten. Kamen was soon a fully-fledged pop star, but his new career was short lived. Subsequent singles failed and Kamen moved to Los Angeles where he was to live for a time with British television presenter  Amanda de Cadenet. “There wasn’t life for Nick Kamen after Levi’s because he broke the rule…he talked!” says Thornton. “We just liked looking at him. It was as simple as that. He was a model and he just had these smouldering beautiful looks… but fundamentally he was to be looked at and lusted over, and never to be taken seriously…”. Nick Kamen turned a new Levi’s ad into a much-hyped media event and ended up eventually being replaced in 1999 by a fluffy yellow pupped called Flat Eric…

(Mark Robinson, The Sunday Times)

Advertising Agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty 
Creative: John Hegarty, Greg Mills, Barbara Nokes
Director: Roger Lyons
Production: Mike Dufficy & Partners
Director of Photography: Richard Greatrex
Editor: Ian Weil
Music: Karl Jenkins, Mike Ratledge
Year: 1985

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2 Comments on “Levi’s 501 – The story behind Launderette”

  1. Levi’s – freedom, integrity, courage, America. Cultural branding says:

    [...] Holt, D. B. (2004). How Brands become Icons. The Principles of Cultural Branding. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Business School Press Klein, N. (1999). No Logo: no space, no choice, no jobs: taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador. Levi’s 501 – The story behind Launderette [...]

  2. Levis 501′s – Remember the Launderette? | iBlog.ie says:

    […] http://thisisnotadvertising.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/levis-501-the-story-behind-launderette/ […]


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