The Best Jeans Ads of All Time
Denim jeans have been a fashion staple for over a century, and many memorable advertising campaigns have been created to market them. As with any fashion category, the briefs aren’t as much about the product attributes (though they sometimes are) – but more about the people that they are made for.
Table of Contents
Social Media has taken over the jeans category
We’re showing some of the great thinking from the history of Jeans advertising here. But social media is where jean marketing is all at today. Take a look at the social channels for nudie jeans, diesel and all the other brands below. They are active, creative and dynamic.
In the past, social media was a trailer that got pulled behind the truck of the ‘big ad idea’. Today social media is the engine that sits inside the big idea. Ignore it at your peril.
There is still space for big brand concepts in the jeans category. But without considering social media as a core vehicle to get to your audience, your advertising will fail.
Some of these campaigns we are showcasing could have been incredible on social media (Diesel Be Stupid). Others wouldn’t have (Levis Odyssey, perhaps). But that doesn’t discredit them. Because what is important for jean advertising – like any fashion ads – is the mood and desire they create in the audience.
Each brand needs it's own distinctive attitude
But there is a danger lurking in this. Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, leaned to far into the world of jocks, cool kids and the all-American vibe. In recent years they’ve suffered a precipitous fall as times have changed, and their brand values became outdated. There is a brilliant Netflix Documentary called WhiteHot: the Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Their attitude didn’t shift with the times. It was too rigid. When you look at great jean brands like Levis, Diesel and Lee you can see that their core truth has remained the same, but the way they express that truth has adjusted – sometimes quite radically – to talk in the language of the new cool kids coming through.
There's going to be a bunch of Levis and Diesel ads below
That’s to be expected. They have a long history of producing some of the best jeans advertising, year after year. But take note of how many pieces of work fit under different briefs. They aren’t saying the same thing over and over, but in different ways.
That’s because if you get your brand’s attitude right (as above), you can say anything about your product, and still stick to the core truth of your brand.
Jeans Brief One: Go your own way in life
Wrangler: Yellow Brick Road
This is the greatest “vagabond” ad ever made. There have been a lot of ‘road less travelled’ campaigns made in advertising, but none have equalled this. From the ironically joyous soundtrack to the artfully composed vignettes. It’s greater than it’s component parts and one of the greatest jean ads ever made.
Levis: Flat Eric
Sometimes it happens in advertising. A creative sees a test film from a young director and thinks: “hmmm, maybe that would work for a client of ours”. It worked for Budweiser “Wassup”, and it worked with Levis “Flat Eric”.
This campaign started life as a music video by a French guy calling himself Mr Oizo. Turns out that Mr Oizo (a.k.a Quentin Dupieux) could also direct, since he made the music video himself too. The creatives at BBH London gave Flat Eric a friend, wrote a few scripts, and before you know it you had a cultural sensation.
This is such a strangely enigmatic ad. It’s a clumsy metaphor treated with such utter reverence and care that it became something transcendent.
The genius of ‘Odyssey’ is that it doesn’t treat the audience like fools. It doesn’t hit you over the head with a twee line at the end that bluntly tells you how to feel and respond. It invites reflection, and rewards the viewer with something extra each time they see it. It’s truly great.
Jeans Brief Two: Makes you sexy
Honestly, every ad in the jeans category does this to some extent, whatever the actual brief. These examples simply lean in to that premise harder and make it the focus of the campaign.
Guess Jeans: The Client
This was such an epic that attracted A-List casting. A story of girls being sent to find out if a fiancee would be tempted to cheat. But delivered impeccably. The casting was genius for the time. Actress Tracy Lords was one of the most famous people on the planet at the time. She was a former porn actress who revealed that during her entire porn career she was underage. It was a scandal that gripped the entire planet. But giving her a real role that wasn’t salacious or exploitative of her notoriety was the real smart move. This deserves it’s place as one of the greatest Jeans campaigns of all time.
Levis: Mermaids (Underwater Love)
Bartle Bogle Hegarty, under the creative leadership of John Hegarty, made incredible work for Levis for quite literally decades. A thread that flows through all the work is their ability to find brilliant music for each ad that elevated the idea and captured the zeitgeist.
This song was little known prior to this ad. But it went straight to the top of the charts afterward. The whole ad is sexy as hell, and worked brilliantly for Levis in the 1990’s.
See above. A great soundtrack. Every frame unmissable. Simply Great.
Jeans Brief Three: From the Streets
This is the ‘worn by the cool kids’ brief. It’s very difficult to do this without looking try-hard. So often, advertising creatives are the dads at the disco. Not in touch with what resonates with the cool kids. But if it’s done right, it’s the most authentic messaging a brand can make.
Diesel: The A-Z of Dance
This was a collaboration with ID Magazine – a very cool street magazine. It was a viral web film. Simply showing people being cool, and they all happen to be wearing your clothes, is a well-worn advertising trope. This is all contained within a bigger idea. Super cool.
The ‘Twisted’ range of jeans by Levis was a curious moment in the denim industry. Some incredible pieces of advertising were made, but the jeans themselves never realy took off in popularity. You’d see them around now and then, but they certainly weren’t a thing.
Nonetheless, the beauty of Levis advertising is that it has a halo effect on their other product lines. The production quality is top notch. Cool kids expressing the attributes of the jeans with their bodies. Nice.
Jeans Brief Four: Live for the Moment
This is also the ‘Don’t overthink it’ brief. The jeans are cool. The brand is cool. Just get them on and get out there to have a cool life.
Diesel: Be Stupid
If I had to pick one single jeans campaign as the best of all time, it would be this campaign. Below is a case study as well as the manifesto that puts the idea into a natty little two minute grab. It’s a call to action. A call to creativity. The exuberance of this campaign is infectious.
Following are the print / posters that bring it to live brilliantly.
Wrangler: We Are Animals
Whereas Diesel “Stupid” is joyous and exuberant, this Wrangler campaign is the polar opposite.
It’s arty and introspective. Enigmatic and wierd. It seems to be saying that we have animal instincts and we just just follow them wherever they take us. But maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. All I know is that I couldn’t stop watching. And it stayed with me for a while after.
That’s all you can ask of an ad campaign.
Jeans Brief Five: Fit / Quality
Some jean brands lean in to the production process more than other brands. The ruggedness of their jeans says something about the ruggedness of the wearer.
G-Star have always been about functional, tough workwear with an industrial flavor. In the below campaign, they blend together CGI and the production process to land at an unexpected, but very cool ending visual. The music was made by Skrillex, which is exactly the kind of collaboration that brands in a social media age love (and need) to make. His 20 million plus followers fit the customer profile, and promoting the collaboration on his socials paid enormous dividends for the brand.
Lee Jeans: Bottoms
This is a bunch of fun, and deserves its place on the best jeans ads of all time. I can only imagine how much fun they could have had with this if it was developed in the current media environment.
This ad pre-dates YouTube and Facebook.
Howies: Print Campaigns
Howies is an outdoor brand started by a former UK copywriter, Dave Hieatt. So, you would expect the ads to be well written. They’re also beautifully art directed too, thanks to the contribution of his former art director, Dave Dye.
Jeans Brief Six: Be Individual
Stand out from the crowd. Follow your own truth. And do it in our jeans.
Diesel: Pyongyang Campaign
Yes, this campaign was REALLY shot in Pyongyang, North Korea in the 1990’s. I don’t know how they pulled it off – particularly given the content of the campaign. It’s possibly the greatest contrast ever put together in advertising history. The most western of consumerist products set against the poverty and deprivations of a totalitarian state. Individuality contrasted with collectivism.
The sheer balls to even think of pulling this off is mindblowing. Was it moral? Not for me to decide. But it was absolutely impossible to ignore. And that’s what makes great jeans advertising.
Levis: Go Forth
Levis made an attempt to be the inspiring brand. Urging people to find their own path and do great things. Using beat poetry and quotes from literature. It was incredibly different to what else was going on competitively at the time.
Pepe Jeans: Print Campaign
Pepe Jeans was perhaps the first to uncover the potency of this approach to the Jeans category. It was mostly done in print, which is what we are mostly featuring below. Beautifully art directed in a style well before it’s time. They stood out like crazy in the UK street magazines of the time such as The Face and i-D magazine – essentially the Instagram and TikToks of the day.
They also did some interesting TV. The ‘Indian’ ad in particular captures a moment in time in a fascinating way. Definitely worth a look.
Jeans Brief Seven: Heritage
You’re going to see a lot of Levis work in this category, because so much of their brand messaging is based on heritage. Let’s start with the Greatest Levis ad of all time.
Just the perfect mood film that somehow makes a period piece the coolest, most cutting edge thing of all time. Brilliant then. Brilliant now. The agency was smart enough to get a great director and let them get on with being great.
Levis: Dangerous Liaisons
Close behind as the next best Levis ad of all time is this awesome brand history told in the most engaging, enticing and technically brilliant way.
Levis: Campfire (Ring of Fire)
Jeans Brief Eight: Just do something provocative and compelling
There are two incredible campaigns I want to showcase here. And they are completely different approaches.
Calvin Klein: Casting Room Campaign
This campaign ended up getting pulled mid-way through it’s run because of the outrage it generated. Just imagine the outrage it would have created today. The internet would simply explode. At first glance this campaign is sleazy, exploitative and sinister. But look deeper. It’s not the language or the actions. It’s the horrifying implications of what might come next. Or what happened before for these young people to be put in this situation.
It’s not just fashion going on here. There’s an investigation of vulnerability, naivite and youthful bravado. It’s definitely difficult to watch at times. But it’s impossible to forget.
Lee Jeans: Buddy Lee
In the 90’s Lee Jeans suddenly decided to centre their advertising about a small doll with superpowers wearing miniature Lee Jeans. They called him Buddy Lee. It’s a surreal ad campaign, but pretty cool as well. Perhaps Buddy was a bit before his time. In social media you could have had a lot of fun with this.
Levis Wide Leg Jeans: Doctors
BBH London has done the bulk of the great work for Levis, but the American agencies have had their moments in the sun as well. This ad was part of a wider campaign, the rest of which was forgettable.
But this ad, directed by the great Spike Jonze, is a classic. Not a lot of jeans in there, but so much fun.
Things to do
The Ad School Buddy: USA & Canada
The complete guide to undergraduate, portfolio, graduate, incubators and more for every budding creative
The complete guide to kickstarting your brilliant creative career.
250 pages packed with profiles, critiques and analysis of every Portfolio School, Masters Program, Short Course and Incubator specialising in Advertising Creative in the USA and Canada. Impeccably researched, and updated six monthly.