By Sophia Ricco
Walt Whitman’s influence as a poet and free thinker is well-established, but the Huntington-born poet’s reach extends beyond the literary world. Marketers over the years have tapped the poet’s persona to sell everything from cars to cigars.
Whitman was re-imagined for the modern day in a 2016 Volvo commercial that read from his poem “Song of the Open Road.” His poems “America” and “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” were employed for a Levi’s jeans commercial in 2009.
Both follow more than a century of branding and advertising that aligned products with perceptions of the poet as a distinguished intellectual (John Hancock Insurance advertisement, 1952) with discerning taste (Old Crow Bourbon, 1960). Whitman’s image sold tobacco, hotel rooms, ice cream and espresso.
“It indicates that the general public and marketers find a value in Walt and want to align themselves with his image to sell their products,” said Cynthia Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace where a new exhibit highlights use of the poet’s brand in advertising.
The exhibit, “Walt Whitman’s Prose and Poetry in Products and Advertisements” will run from Jan. 16 to April 7 and is drawn entirely from the collection of Birthplace member Ed Centeno. Centano has amassed an expansive collection of Whitman-related items that includes advertisements, posters, commercial products and fine art.
Centeno has displayed and at times, donated pieces from his collection before but never at this magnitude. At first, he planned an exhibit of posters that quoted Whitman’s work, Shor said, but she encouraged him to bring in everyday products with his likeness as well.
“There are many ways to capture history,” Shor said. “One way is to capture it in its commercial value, which is what this exhibit does. It’s a way of looking back and seeing what society thought was important, what they were selling and how they were selling it.”
A possible reason why Whitman’s work has stood the rest of time and continues to find its way into advertisements may be because it “resonates into modern society,” Shor said.
“Walt had a vision during his own lifetime and his poetry expressed the vision of universality and transcendence… His words were transcendent, meaning they went beyond the time,” Shor said. “This is why his work is applicable in the 21st century.”
Whether it’s a cigar box or an advertisement for whiskey, Whitman’s image is found in advertising spanning over a hundred years. Each instance provides a “snapshot” of the culture at that time.
“They’re indicative of their time, these are the styles, these are the words they used, and this is where they fit into society,” Shor said. “I think it gives us a mirror into that society by looking at objects from the past.”
Centeno will discuss his 33 years of collecting, why he collects and how the exhibit came to fruition a public reception at the Birthplace on Jan. 13, 3-5 p.m. For more information, visit waltwhitman.org.