by Jennifer Sey
Over the last ten years, Dockers Khakis, once imagined as an expression of Boomer individuality, have become synonymous with the soulless office cubicle and suburban capitulation. As the newly anointed marketing lead for Dockers, I’ve found this challenge squarely in my sphere of accountability.
I’ve been at Levi Strauss and Company for more than ten years. It is no mistake I’ve chosen to stay there. The company has a long standing history of philanthropy and it makes durable, common sense products for a reasonable price. There’s nothing exorbitant, frivolous or tooth decay inducing about a quality pair of pants. My latest stint on Dockers has been the most fun I’ve ever had, professionally, in my life. When work, creativity and personal passion merge, it’s a jackpot of sorts.
We introduced our new ad campaign on December 1st to quite a bit of fanfare and robust conversation in the “blogosphere”. A nerve of sorts, appears to have been touched.
The campaign can be summed up with the tongue-in-cheek tagline “Wear the Pants”. We’re talking to men, the primary wearers of khaki pants, and trying to do so with a bit of sass.
While researching, we learned that men are a bit off their game these days. They’ve suffered 80% of the layoffs in the last year. Women outnumber men in the workforce for the first time in history. Women also outnumber men in higher education. Our culture heralds the “man-baby” - best represented by the leads in beer commercials (he always chooses beer over his girlfriend) or Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover, or Seth Rogen in anything – as a hero. He doesn’t conform. He doesn’t wear a suit. He does his own thing, which is apparently nothing. He loves video games and bongs and he shuns obligations. These pop culture man-babies are unkempt, unfit, have no direction and seemingly no pride. Sure they are funny. I laugh as much as anyone. But our culture has elevated this type of immaturity amongst men to unconscionable heights. Aren’t men insulted by this man-baby phenomenon? We thought they could use a little encouragement.
As we continued investigating, we were heartened by the fact that women have come so far. Women put forth viable female presidential and vice presidential candidates last year. Two of the three national nightly news anchors are women. Women work, mother, give money and time to good causes. They have positions of leadership while continuing to nurture in the home. They have maintained sensitivity while projecting authority and bringing a new sense of collaboration to the workplace. So why not encourage men to stand up and do the same? Women across the country told us: “I just want men to meet us where we are.”
Is it a lot to ask a company to be at the forefront of social change? Maybe. But I’d venture to say that companies have an obligation to be a part of it. Levi Strauss and Company has done so for many years: first company to integrate factories in the south in the 1960s before it was legally mandated, the first Fortune 500 company to offer benefits to same sex partners in the early 1990’s and the only company in California to file an amicus brief with the courts against Proposition 8.
The men’s movement is underway. There are academics that study it (“Gender Studies”, formerly the domain of feminist theory, seems to have shifted to include Male Studies), there’s the Men’s Project, the Boys Project, the Million Man March, The Million Father March and the Promise Keepers. There are books about saving our male children – Raising Cain, Boys Adrift, The Trouble with Boys – all focused on what is driving the epidemic of underachieving young men and what we can do about it. It’s not absurd to think that Dockers, a brand with a predominantly male constituency, could participate in heralding positive change.
The campaign has generated heated and profound talk amongst consumers. The general factions are:
1. Feminists. Some are angry, claiming that by asking men to wear the pants we are asking women to step back in time to when women couldn’t literally or figuratively wear pants.
2. LGBT community. Some have interpreted the efforts as promoting very traditional and damaging notions of masculinity, a retro ideal that many within the LGBT community don’t fit into or want to fit into and have been punished and shamed for not adhering to.
3. Christians. Some are interpreting our statement as championing traditional gender roles. They like this.
4. Lots of other people who are straight, gay, male, female who interpret it as a little bit true. A little bit funny. Something to think about.
As a mother, wife, professional woman, writer, feminist, former N.O.W. intern and long time LGBT friend, here’s what I think…
Men have been at the center of practically every scandal of the last decade. From sports (Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds) to politics (John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford) to the economy (it was men, after all, at the helms of the banks, the hedge funds, the car companies), to corporate malfeasance (Enron). Boys, our future men, are struggling in school. Dropping out at alarming rates, suffering from ADHD at several times the rate of girls.
We all have a lot to gain from men getting on track and standing up with authority to say: We’re going to embody a new masculine ideal built around integrity, accountability and ethical behavior. We denounce frivolity and excess in favor of utility and purpose. We’re taking care of our families and the people we love. We are great dads and husbands and friends and boyfriends. We embrace sensitivity and empathy and behave chivalrously towards men and women alike. We will maintain our collective sense of humor, but we’re going to be serious human beings that contribute to the world in a positive manner.
Women aren’t perfect. Just ask my husband. I can be impatient, petty, humorless, demanding, unforgiving. But, speaking in overt generalities, men have just fallen off the wagon of late.
This is not about gay vs straight. Or men vs women. Or the good old days. This is not about Don Draper. I love him, yes…as a well-drawn television character. I wouldn’t want him as my husband, friend, boss, employee.
This is about men stepping up, growing up, “manning up”. Do I believe pants can be the harbinger of this much-needed movement? Eh. A great writer once said “The clothes make the man.” Not entirely true. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt for some of those man-babies glued to the couch playing Xbox in jeans that have never been washed, an ironic tee-shirt with pit stains, unmatched socks and old-school canvas kicks to get up take a shower and put on a grown up outfit, khaki or not, if he’s going to march into the world with any authority.
Our intent is to get people’s attention with humor and encourage them to think a bit about something more profound than pants. Toyota participated in getting folks to think about carbon emissions. And yes, sold some cars in the process. And of course, we’d like to sell some pants. It’s the shared job of the team that put this campaign together - a team made up of men and women, gay and straight, young and less young.
The way it works in my house is pretty non-traditional – I work full time, my husband does most of the kid caring-for while taking on part time gigs. It is an equal albeit unconventional partnership. I certainly don’t want to go back to the days of yore when men ruled the roost. But I wouldn’t mind if rude young men stopped pretending they didn’t see pregnant women on the bus and maybe offered up a seat to a tired lady with sore feet. And I wouldn’t mind if men in leadership positions took their responsibilities on with integrity. And I for sure wouldn’t mind if my own two boys grew up to be strong and loving and polite and able to clean up their own rooms. Yep, I want them to wear the pants. Just like a lot of the women I know seem to be doing in today’s world.