Levi's Gives Struggling Town Cinderella Treatment

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman

Residents of impoverished Braddock, Pa., are starring in a new Levi's ad that Mayor John Fetterman (above) says has had a positive effect on the community. "We just wanted to showcase the community ... and do it in a way that is dignified," he says. Courtesy of John Fetterman hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of John Fetterman

Braddock, Pa., is so impoverished and dilapidated, the filmmakers behind The Road cast it as the post-apocalyptic wasteland for their movie.

Like so many Rust Belt towns after the collapse of the steel industry, Braddock has street after street of boarded-up homes and shuttered storefronts. Those streets were once littered with shops, restaurants and movie theaters. At its height, the town's population was 20,000. At two-thirds of a square mile — and 14 furniture stores — its density once rivaled New York.

But this fall, those streets will be getting some national exposure that many depressed towns do not.  They'll be featured in a $55 million multimedia ad campaign for Levi's, produced by Portland-based ad giant Wieden+Kennedy — the same company behind a recent string of viral Old Spice ads — that uses real people from Braddock as models.

The campaign is called Ready for Work, and it's aimed at an audience living through the "jobless recovery."  For the people whose town was falling apart long before the Great Recession, it says a lot more.

Watch The Ad

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Ready For Work

One of the campaign's central spots is a one-minute ad featuring black-and-white footage of Braddock residents working: taking a sledgehammer to the walls of an old house, roofing a church — all decked out in Levi's. The ad is scored with a tinny, Depression-era cover of "Heigh-Ho" from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Tyler Whisnand, a creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, tells NPR's Guy Raz that the juxtaposition of the footage and music is an effective communicator of the message: These people are ready to work.

But that isn't all the ad shows, he says. "We're also seeing parts of Braddock getting taken down. That's also part of the reality there. It's a broken town."

The ad's only voice breaks in about 45 seconds along to say: "Ninety percent of our town is in a landfill somewhere. So reinvention is our only option."

The voice belongs to John Fetterman.

The 'Mayor Of Hell'

Fetterman is a big, stocky guy; bald, with a biker's goatee. He's got Braddock's zip code tattooed on his forearm, and looks more like a pro wrestler than a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School.

Since he came into office in 2005, Fetterman's leadership in Braddock has received a lot of national attention. Rolling Stone called him the "Mayor of Hell" back in 2009. He was in The Atlantic's "25 Brave Thinkers" issue last year — that's where Wieden+Kennedy learned about him.

The agency visited Braddock last year and proposed a partnership. Braddock would be the face of their new Levi's campaign. Residents would be used (and paid) as models. Levi's even threw in a $1 million community center and pitched in for a new playground downtown.

For Fetterman, it couldn't have come at a better time. The town's only remaining large employer — a hospital run by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — closed earlier this year, taking 600 jobs with it.  For a town of fewer than 3,000 people, it was a big hit.

"When you drive through downtown Braddock, 90 percent of our building stock is gone," Fetterman tells Raz. "Not dilapidated, but gone. Would you believe that the first Carnegie Library in America — out of 2,800-plus — was on the demolition block and was saved by only a matter of weeks?"

Fetterman has taken some steps to turn the town around, like securing grants for youth employment programs and drawing some national attention to the town's plight. But it's only gone so far.

Model Workers

The most obvious criticism of the Levi's campaign is one Fetterman swats away quickly: The jeans are not made in America anymore.

"Everyone agrees that we'd love to have these jeans produced in America," he says. "All of us participate in buying the lowest-priced goods. I never wanted to get involved in solving all the ills of globalization. We just wanted to showcase the community, create the community center, and do it in a way that is dignified."

There are local critics with more nuanced beefs, however. Resident and filmmaker Tony Buba was born in Braddock, and his 89-year-old mother still lives there.

"I never knew there were that many thin people in Braddock until I watched those spots — or that many people with six-pack abs. You don't see anybody 300 pounds and wearing a pair of Levi's jeans walking across the screen."

The townspeople used in the ads volunteered and were paid well, Fetterman says — but he worked for free.

"Not one dime in compensation," he says. "I didn't even get a free pair of jeans out of the deal; 100 percent of this relationship — all of that benefit — has accrued for the community's benefit."

Free Money

For school districts and towns as impoverished as Braddock, Fetterman says, it doesn't matter much where the help comes from.

"If someone wants to give me $100 million, I'll kiss their ass and call it ice cream," he says. "It's not about kissing anyone's ring — it's about folks in the business community that are enjoying a high level of success looking at communities that are struggling."

Fetterman says it's still an open-ended question as to how much total assistance Braddock will net from the Levi's deal. For now, the town has its new playground, funding for its library and its massive new community center.

"It's a space that didn't exist in town before Levi's came in," Fetterman says. "The level of services it's going to provide for the next 30 or 40 years — that's invaluable and priceless.

"I think that this kind of private philanthropy — I'd like to see it continue," he says. "It really does deliver benefit in a way that government assistance and foundation assistance can't."

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