Plagiarism in advertising. We’ve seen it all before.

January 6, 2010

With accusations of plagiarism, who’s smiling now?

In my last post, I accused the American Express “Take Charge” campaign of plagiarism. I was especially upset because I’d chosen the work as my favorite piece of advertising in 2009. Ouch. Not only was the source material (pictured above) pirated but the agency used the concept for another client (Audi) in a different country (South Africa). I’m not a detective, nor a journalist, but the evidence was damning. All of it is viewable here:

Evidence of plagiarism

As I think about the controversy, I can’t help but recall situations in my career that put my agency or me in similar peril. It would be false to say I never created advertising that was derivative of other ideas. Or that I never knowingly or unknowingly approved advertising that was “guilty” of the same.

There are weeds in every garden. Some are harmless. For example, with new models every year, car advertising would be tough to do without repeating headlines. How many variations of the phrase “tanning bed” have you heard in copy for this or that sexy new convertible? The Bonneville Salt Flats have been used hundreds of times to dramatize fast cars in TV commercials. Copyright infringement or just cliché? Back when we made newspaper ads, cutely naming coupons “rip off” or “price cut” was common word play.

Numerous terms and phrases are used over and over again as copy. Puns get recycled, both verbal and visual.  Are these examples of plagiarism? I don’t know. But if creative directors sent copywriters back to their offices every time they experienced deja vu nothing would ever get done.

Here’s a scenario that might indemnify the agency in question (AIQ). Or at least explain its behavior. What if the AIQ came up with the “smiling faces” concept before having seen the artist’s images? Great minds think alike. Why can’t (we) get credit for the concept, too? The answer lies in who got there first. In this case it was the photographer. Case closed.

Okay. But what if the AIQ approached the artist for permission to use the idea (and presumably him as well)? If the AIQ did and he said “yes” they’d be good to go, right?

Something went wrong. Either the AIQ didn’t ask for permission or they weren’t granted it. At this point the Audi commercial was made and then, much later, the campaign for American Express.

I’m not trying to rationalize plagiarism. I’m just saying it’s gray. We must be careful when calling someone else’s kettle black. Yes, I still think American Express and its agency crossed the line. Big time. But for the grace of the Gods of Advertising go I.

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8 Responses to “Plagiarism in advertising. We’ve seen it all before.”

  1. adchick said

    Maybe they were inspired by http://www.facesinplaces.blogspot.com.
    I liked this campaign a LOT when I first saw it. Now, I feel dirty! Awesome research on calling it out!

  2. SRP said

    Adchick-
    Obviously I felt/feel the same way you do. Though not so much “dirty” as embarrassed and disappointed. What’s odd is how the trade press cares not one iota or the fact that no one is coming to campaign’s defense.

  3. Jane said

    Faces in Places is a blog devoted to faces started in 2007.
    I think it’s fair to say that people have seen faces in nature forever.
    People love to be creative and it is a wonderful website to share images.
    Maybe Jean and Francois have had some inspiration for the blog, who knows.
    They certainly changed the way I see the world.

    Steven Heller wrote a blog yesterday in T Style about this campaign.
    What I found most interesting was AMEX’s response to where they came up with the idea:

    “The creative concept was inspired by the ‘faces’ … seen in the everyday,”

    The statement seems almost generic, written by a copy writer and cleared through the legal department.

    Do you remember the movie “Working Girl”? There is a scene near the end of the movie when Sigourney Weaver’s character is caught in a lie. She stole Melanie Griffiths idea. The client asked her where she had come up with idea for the merger. She struggled to answer, caught in her deception.

    But this is not a hollywood ending where the villain gets his due.

    I bet that Jean Robert can tell you when he saw his first face.
    I bet that Francois remembers the phone call from Jean asking to help on the book for Pentagram London in 1978.

    Faces have been his journey ever since.

  4. Jane said

    one last comment:

    Francois Robert’s faces images graced the cover and divider pages of “the One Show”, volume 22 advertising’s best in print, radio and TV back in 2000.

  5. interesting debate… where do our ideas come from? Is it that our ideas are then never unique…? most probably not… BUT, the key is: acknowledgment of what inspires or influences our ideas… I guess it’s about appropriate appropriation… what do you think?
    The faces found in objects or environments are by no means anything new… You will also find it in Alan D Fletcher’s book: The Art of Looking Sideways…
    A fine line in teaching students what constitutes to plagiarism in the creative industry.

    • SRP said

      Naretha-
      When plagiarism crosses the line? Maybe it’s a gut feel, like that judge’s line about pornography: I know it when you see it!
      Thanks for following and commenting.

    • The Art of Looking Sideways is a terrific book. Alan Fletcher was a friend and colleague of Francois and Jean Robert’s. Jean, in fact, is pictured on page 41 of the book. The face image on page 11 has a photo credit of Jean Robert

  6. […] is a hot button topic in Adland. I’ve covered it numerous times on this blog, including this post about my favorite campaign in 2010, which, apparently, had been plagiarized. The same thing […]

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