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Ads wear out their welcome

Published Sep. 27, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

The ad campaign for Levi's new line of khakis seemed aimed at the crowbar-and-brick crowd. It was an invitation to steal that New York officials just couldn't accept.

Levi Strauss & Co. began putting actual pairs of the $50 pants in its bus shelter ads in New York City and San Francisco this week, and it fully expected people to break through the plastic panels to steal them.

In fact, the company was so sure people would stoop to vandalism to get at the pants that it designed the ads for pre- and post-theft presentation.

If the khakis are still there, the ad copy reads, "Nice Pants." Once the pants disappear, an outline of the khakis remains with the words, "Apparently they were very nice pants."

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was not amused at the thought of New Yorkers shopping with crowbars on city streets. He condemned the ads as "a terrible mistake . . . exactly the wrong message to be teaching to people."

By the end of the day, New York's Department of Transportation, which regulates bus shelters, and Gannett Outdoor Advertising, which sells the ad space in both cities, decided to pull the ads in New York.

"We both agreed these ads will be pulled," said Transportation Commissioner Lee Sander. "They will all be down by tomorrow night."

James Reyes, a spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Railway, said Gannett hadn't been asked to pull the ads there by midafternoon, but they were getting plenty of phone calls asking what they would do.

The controversy surrounding the ad campaign was just what Levi's wanted: free publicity.

"The thought did cross our mind that some pairs might be stolen," acknowledged Brad Williams, senior marketing specialist with the San Francisco-based company. "But we think that adds to the talk value of the ads." Williams did not return a call later seeking comment on the city's decision to remove the ads.

The pants appeared this week in New York City and San Francisco, in between the same hard plastic panels used for conventional two-dimensional advertisements. In all, 40 New York bus shelters had a pair of Dockers.

By Tuesday morning, at least one pair of pants was already gone from the West Coast, and the New York Post said several pairs were missing in New York.

"We factored the vandalism into their contract," said Doug Watts, a vice president at Gannett Outdoor Advertising, which rented the ad space in New York. Gannett charged Levi's an extra fee, anticipating the replacement of shattered plastic ($300 a sheet) and twisted panel boxes ($2,000 apiece).

The New York Police Department was taking a harder line: Anyone caught pants-napping could be charged with vandalism and theft, said Officer Sara Carpenter, a police spokeswoman.

The ads were scheduled to run through the end of October, pants or no pants. But a warning to would-be thieves: The sample khakis are mostly waist sizes 32 or 34.

"Anybody bigger will be disappointed when they try them on," Williams said.