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:
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.