The market: Jeans wars: the final frontier

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It Isn't easy being second. It's like being Buzz Aldrin or whoever it was who broke Roger Bannister's four-minute record. All of your life is an uphill struggle. It's the same if you're Pepsi and Coca Cola's out there selling all those groovy bottles. Or if you make jeans and you're anyone other than Levi's.

In the jeans market, especially in denim's bare-fleshed world of advertising, everything is still defined around Levi's. Since Bartle Bogle Hegarty whipped Nick Kamen's kecks off just over 10 years ago, the UK marketing of Levi's has taken over the whole global strategy and everyone's watching what those scamps in Soho are up to next. It's not like the competition is taking this lying down, however. Valentine's Day sees another hopeful slugger enter the ring to exchange a few button-fly blows. This time round it's Lee, which launches its latest ad on the same day as Levi's. They'll both be spending millions head to head on their ad campaigns, which are glossy, sexy, groovy and all those sort of words.

The ad plots are kind of simple. Lee's "Space" shows two astronauts in orbit feeling all horny and ready to make the earth move. They rip off their space suits to reveal tight fitting Lee Jeans (of course) and little else, but find that being in zero gravity means it's hard to get a purchase on anything to, well, you know. Suddenly our cute little spacegirl gets an idea, grabs the muscle-bound man and buttons her fly to his. Thus entwined, they cavort ecstatically across the heavens to a rather saucy soundtrack. So far, so good.

Levi's went in the opposite direction. As in down rather than up. The 501's wearer is a fisherman, although he don't look like no Cornish trawler- hand to me. His boat is in a storm and he's about to lose his catch so he heads back to save it when, doh, he bangs his head on the boat and collapses over the side. As his unconscious body slumps on the sea bed three weird, flickering mermaids, looking just like fashion models (coincidentally, they are fashion models), swim to his aid and give him some fairly serious mouth-to-mouth. He recovers, they try and strip his kit off but can't make it with the denim so he's up and away to the surface where he re- joins his boat. The point of this, you see, is that 501's are launching a shrink-to-fit range so his jeans shrink tight in the water and thus the mermaids can't pull them off. See? It's a product message after all.

"We're trying to give our brand the same level of desirability as Levi's," explained Mark Vaughan, account director at Grey Advertising, which made the Lee commercial. "Levi's has dominated the market for too long in the UK and we'd like to raise the stakes. Our new ad continues a series of commercials that we've done for Lee in which the heroine rather than some muscular hero is in control. Our last ad featured Gypsy Rose Lee and in this one it's the woman astronaut who makes the running. We make no bones about it. If we're going to be selling jeans to today's market, we have to portray women in a modern way."

Noble sentiments indeed. And, let's be honest, justifiable. If there's one thing the Levi's campaign concentrates on, it's gorgeous white males with very few clothes other than the requisite denim. Whether this is Lee's attempt to be the jeans for women or whether they think a strong, modern woman without many clothes on appeals to the British male remains to be seen. What also remains to be seen is whether the ad will be a success.

To put this to the test, we asked Michael Oliveira-Salac, editor of underground fashion magazine Blow, to review the commercials and see if it gave Lee a chance to break Levi's hegemony. He was harsh: "The Levi's ad ... well, Levi's have done it again. After 'Space', you'd have expected a big production, big music number but they've surprised me. The mermaids look really cool and the Brazilian soundtrack keeps the feel of drum and bass but is sufficiently removed to avoid being naff. The Lee film is pretty crap. Why have they done a space theme when Levi's 'Spaceman' ad was so memorable and Babylon Zoo made number one? They should be original and not copy Levi's. They'll never make it that way. It's senseless plagiarism." Sorry Lee.