No longer smiling: It appears my favorite commercial of the year was plagiarized.

January 5, 2010

Far be it from me to court controversy on a blog (!) but only a few days into the new decade and we have one. A doozy. Followers of this blog know I chose the American Express campaign, “Smiles” as my favorite advertising of the year. Over the course of two posts I praised this work for its craft, charm and simplicity.  On December 7th, I wrote:

There is sincerity about Amex’s work, which belies the rampant turmoil and cynicism gripping the financial (and advertising) world. Kudos to American Express and their advertising agency for giving us pause to smile.

Well, that sincerity has been called into question and I’m afraid the evidence is most damning. A commenter, “Jane” makes a hard case for plagiarism and offers film as proof.  First, her comment:

Yes, everyone has seen (these) happy and sad faces because Francois and Jean Robert have been producing books with faces since 1978. Francois and Jean Robert have helped all of you SEE the world in a different way because of their books. An original idea? Perhaps, perhaps not… but they have produced 4 books with copyrighted images.

Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg approached Mr. Robert through his rep in NY in 2006 about using his faces for an Audi commercial, didn’t use him, but used the “faces idea” anyway… then Ogilvy & Mather uses “faces” for American Express in 2009. Coincidence? I think not.

The agency basically used Francois Robert’s book as a storyboard to create this commercial. The shopping bag, wallet, are headphones compared side by side are almost identical.

Here is the Audi commercial:

In addition, have a look at a recent story from Fast Company: Fast Company article

I hope it goes without saying that I was unaware of both the photographic source material as well as the Audi commercial. If I had been I never would have chosen the Amex campaign as my favorite advertising of the year. Quite the contrary. While much advertising is derivative one cannot abide blatant plagiarism. We are paid for our ideas. Stealing them is unacceptable. “Jane” puts it in more poetic terms:

The question is, who owns an idea? Is it OK to steal the idea for commercial gain in the case of Ogilvy & Mather? Is it OK because agencies do this all of the time? What if it were YOUR idea? YOUR music? Your industrial design? How would you feel?

I’d feel like shit. Therefore I’d like to offer my apologies to those wronged for furthering this charade. If the agency, filmmaker or anyone else involved cares to make a rebuttal be my guest. I was wrong once. Maybe I’m missing something yet again…

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11 Responses to “No longer smiling: It appears my favorite commercial of the year was plagiarized.”

  1. Ere said

    I’ve seen this idea presented twice at two agencies. Both times I killed it and said ‘you can’t just take an execution from a photography book.’ Shame on ogilvy and hopefully they and Amex get taken to court.

    • SRP said

      Honestly, I probably would have approved the idea if it was based on the photographer’s work but (hopefully) I would have insisted on his collaboration. For me, the backstory resulting in the Audi spot make the matter truly egregious.

  2. I had the pleasure to work with the Robert Brothers in the Seventies. Their originality was amazing crafting ideas and art out of the ether. Their speed was also
    phenomenal. Accomplished artists, designers and photographers– they found smiles everywhere they worked!

  3. Dan said

    Doh – I thought it looked familiar. Though I was thinking it was just reminding me of the old Volkswagen “squares” commercial.

  4. this idea has been done so many times. how about the light socket expressing shock that won numerous awards? the american express ads are well executed but are as original as the average oasis song.

  5. Paul said

    And wouldn’t it be par for the course to start seeing knockoffs of this ad all over? Nothing like derivatives of derivatives to make the sighs grow more audible.

  6. Morgan said

    First, a declaration of interest. Working for Thomas Thomas in London I could certainly be accused of having an interest in promoting and defending Kevin Thomas’ work for American Express. But I’m joining this conversation here because, while I agree that this industry can at times fall foul of best practice by some distance when it comes to copyright, I don’t think this is the case here.

    Once an idea like this has been so widely disseminated is it right to call it plagarism? I don’t think so. While the Roberts may have hit on the idea, it’s simplicity suggests it may well have been around before they popularised it.

    Today it’s a fairly well-worn device. Something that part-time photographers the world over engage in. Taking such a well-known device for a contemporary campaign risks creating something that appears instantly cliched, hackneyed, old… and yet this spot doesn’t. It has an emotional honesty to it that has had a real impact on so many of those who have watched it.

    I would imagine that those posters who have refused to countenance the idea in the past did so on questions of appropriateness and execution as well as of originality.

    When a little known idea, something new and not seen before, is taken and popularised for commercial gain by an advertising agency (the dancing man of Guinness, the cog of Honda, Sony’s bouncing balls) then there is a charge to answer and people should be ashamed if the source is not credited. But in a case like this I find it hard to accept that anyone involved has knowing “screwed” the original artists, or should feel bad about creating the piece they have.

    Just type a search into google…

    • Francois Robert is not a part time photographer. He has been a professional photographer for over 40 years, with many published books and exhibitions over the world. He was approached by Ogilvy+Mather for the Audi campaign. O+M were very much aware of his work. Just because images of faces are on flicker does not diminish the fact the Ogilvy + Mather knew of Francois Robert. His books were probably referenced by the agency for objects with faces to select and storyboard. I agree the commercial is beautifully executed by Thomas and Thomas. I have great respect for American Express, who pulled this campaign. It’s a shame that this campaign is entered in competitions and wins awards. While is may not plagiarize exact images in the commercial, it is obvious to many where the inspiration came from.©/

  7. […] AMEX, Audi and their ad agencies, I’ll give credit where it’s due – the work of Francois Robert came to mind. […]

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