Is terrific new creative from Allstate imitation or emulation and does it even matter?

July 6, 2010




My last post, in praise of Leo Burnett’s brash, new campaign for Allstate, “Mayhem” prompted numerous comments, a few of which have compelled me to write again.

One commenter, going by the pseudonym, Bill O’Really took the advertising to task for being derivative of an older campaign by Fallon for Traveler’s Insurance, called “Risk” and for an award-winning utility commercial entitled “Wind.” The work is posted above. Here is one of O’Really’s comments, verbatim:

One insurance company creates an ad in which a guy playing RISK runs around doing random things. A few years later another insurance company creates an ad in which a guy named MAYHEM runs around doing random things? C’mon Steff, could they be any closer? The only difference is Burnett went for a more menacing tone. The Fallon spot was award-winning and very well known. Not to mention the French commercial which is the best of the lot. I don’t know, there’s a point where you say, nice idea, but it’s been done and it’s been done in our very category. I know there are no new ideas, but that doesn’t mean we have to resort to this kind of thing.

I confess I’d forgotten about the other campaigns; seeing them again I do concede they are quite similar. But is it plagiarism? And if so, does it matter? I’ve faced these questions before.

A while back I’d chosen a commercial for American Express, “Smiles” as my favorite campaign of the year. Quickly, I received numerous comments that it, too, had been “borrowed” from other source material. So close were the similarities between campaigns, I reneged on my best-of-the-year verdict. While acknowledging a grey area existed between plagiarism and “borrowed interest”, I couldn’t get around certain facts, namely that the artist whose work had been copied had, I think, not been compensated for his concept. Other factors played into my about-face and they’re all documented: Gods post: \"Smiles\"

And so here we are again. Fact: The Allstate campaign personifies “Mayhem” and the Traveler’s campaign personifies “Risk.” Yet, despite the evidence, I’m not so sure I have the same negative opinion. The world has changed. The Internet and social media have allowed for an endless array of ideas (for brands, for entertainment, for everything really) to flourish. These ideas build upon other ideas, many of them knowingly. Someone creates something popular and it gets replicated and parodied ad nausea. Popular culture repeats itself over and over again. Mimicking others has become an art form; dare I say, acceptable.

Is it acceptable, then, for Leo Burnett and Allstate to manufacture a campaign so similar to Fallon and Traveler’s? While I do find it disturbing that both campaigns are for big, well-known insurance companies I honestly don’t know if it matters anymore. I doubt the consumer cares. They will respond to the work without passing judgment. And since the “Risk” campaign is several years old they likely won’t remember it anyway.

Matters of intellectual property, then, are only for the respective clients and agencies to decide. I do not know if copyright laws regarding advertising creative even exist. If so, are they enforceable? And, moreover, should they be?

In Hollywood there are copyright laws yet many films are derivative of one another, some of them coming out side by side. A few summers ago there were two “Volcano” movies; two films about Truman Capote, and so on.

And isn’t Burger King a copy of McDonald’s, a Whopper a copy of the Big Mac? Coke has its Pepsi. United has American. There is nothing new since the Romans. Maybe now we should stop pretending there is.

For what it’s worth, I like the Allstate work better. The writing, the acting, the directing; I respond to it more viscerally than I do for the “Risk” campaign. But does that make it okay? And if it isn’t “okay” are we in Ad Land the only ones that give a damn?

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25 Responses to “Is terrific new creative from Allstate imitation or emulation and does it even matter?”

  1. Bill O'Really said

    Something is ok because it’s become a common practice? Like robbery in the streets of Brazil? Or the prostitution of children in Thailand? You’re on a slippery slope Steff, when you say something is acceptable because lots of folks do it. As for Hollywood, you get sued if you steal someone’s screenplay or even elements of it. And in journalism you get fired if you steal someone’s intellectual property. Only in advertising do you get praise and possibly a little gold statue.

    • SRP said

      Bill (and Brian)-
      I’m just trying to remain objective on this…
      Recently, at the Hyper Island Master Class (advanced digital training for creative professionals), we had a long discussion about “building” and “borrowing” and, like it or not, it is a major symptom of creativity in the digital age. I don’t disagree with you (in theory and practice) but the new creative regimes likely will…
      I’m hash-tagging Hyper Island so maybe one of the instructors can comment?

  2. brian said

    I’m with Bill on this one.

  3. Ok my last post was the product of insomnia and the recent experience with insurance. We’ve created insurance. Or has it created us? From the consumer perspective we all believe and rightly so that insurance companies have a legislative and emotional realm to exist in.

    What about the claim. Random is the reason. Claim handling is the product. We “as consumers” are only really able to identify with the claim. That’s been done. is “Meyhem” so unique? “If Risk is French does it make it more innocent or palatable?. “reward for good driving…big deal. “Meyhem” while well done is not the norm. The norm is the hot chick in the pink suit with the too big latte sideswiping my car. Do I need empathy? No. I need consistency. LIke the premium. We live our live in Oh SHIT. We Pay for OK. How about a campaign that redefines “Well.” Oh, sorry you had water in your basement -your policy covers this. “what about this?” “Well…? How about a campaign that stops leveraging Mayhem and Wind – the obvious. How about one that says “Well is not a question. Well is the result of your coverage with us. We make it Well. Bad things happen. We make it Well. You’ll never hear “Well” from us a as a question. So, let the wind blow, meyhem ensue. We make it Well. I still don’t trust the Lizard. And why make your CEO a bafoon. Memorable is cute. Damage to my house isn’t.

  4. Roswell Thomas said

    There is definitely something about mass media that rewards imitation. Since that suspicious coincidence of volcano movie releases, we’ve experienced a sickening glut of vampire everything, everywhere, and let’s not even get started on how many people William Shakespeare is supposed to have ripped off.

    Like Steffan says, there is nothing new since the Romans, and they also personified natural forces in order to reach wide audiences — stealing a lot of these personifications from the Greeks, let’s not forget (talk about Burger King and McDonalds, how about Zeus and Jupiter?).

    But as Jean-Luc Godard reminds us, “it’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to,” and I think the Allstate ad goes in an appreciably different direction from Epuron or Travelers. Epuron’s wind is bumbling and misunderstood. The Travelers’ Risk is innocent; he never sleeps, so he’s tired all the time, and he doesn’t knock over precious art or push masonry onto parked cars on purpose. He winces at the damage he does, while Allstate’s Mayhem chuckles gleefully. He’s grittier, darker, and arguably “novel and non-obvious,” to steal from the language of patents.

    These commercials could all be said to steal from Aeolus, the Greek God of Wind, or Loki, the Norse god of Mischief, but of course these ancient concepts in turn borrow from other cultures and thinkers. The chain of plagiarism stretches back for eons. This kind of thing touches something in everyone, though, there is something about anthropomorphizing natural calamity that appeals to human vanity. We are comforted (in a small way) to imagine that the natural forces that harm us are sentient, possessing human emotions and desires. We feel powerless as individuals in the face of a random wind storm, but if the random wind storm is itself a person, we do not feel so powerless as a species. Perhaps next time this wind storm can be reasoned with or bribed.

    Aeolus never sold wind turbines and Bacchus never hawked wine (that I know of) but the fact that we still know who they are today speaks to their mass appeal thousands of years ago. What can I say? Often, gods and advertising just go together.

    • SRP said

      Yours is the most erudite response to a topic as I’ve ever received. And it couldn’t come at a better time. This is a major issue, no question. Your “comment” is proof that imitation is flattery and so much more. I agree with Godard, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.” Others?

  5. Hey Steph, since, I guess, the consensus seems to be that it’s o.k. that there’s “nothing new under the sun” thematically (which, to me, ought to feel like a small soul death every time we acknowledge it), maybe it’d be more illuminating to take the discussion into nuance. God, after all, may actually be in the details.

    I, personally, look for levels of “appropriateness” of the metaphors to express the given idea, which then lead to levels of “pleasing-ness” (or not), when you see it finished.

    For me, wind being misunderstood, for the educational job it was meant to do, is perfect. Risk never sleeping, though still definitely a beautifully executed truth, slightly less so for its obviousness.
    The Allstate campaign, while I know and respect and like the people who did it (in fact they worked for me), is ham fisted by comparison. As an audience member, I’m not given the satisfaction of closing any of the “loop” myself. I know exactly what they’re trying to sell/say (and what’s going to happen), from the first few frames.

    Not uncommon, especially in the States (remember the campaign with the bald guy in the T-shirt that said “Your Retirement”), but unfortunate and preventable.

    My two cents.

  6. Tim Leake said

    Hey Steffan,

    In response to your “building / borrowing in the digital age” comment, per the HIMC discussion —

    I think the key difference between these examples and “digital borrowing” (to completely make up a term for the sake of this conversation) is transparency.

    Clearly, none of these campaigns was a purposeful response to another. Likely, they merely happened to take a similar tactic (Personification — which was around long before the Wind commercial).

    A better example of a brand truly using the “borrow / build” approach, rather than flat-out ripping off a concept, is Hyundai’s recent effort to build on the Mini vs. Porsche race.

    It’s completely transparent about its roots. And more fun for it.

  7. Ben said

    I’m interning at Leo this summer Steffan! Really interesting post on Mayhem! I honestly never myself have seen those spots for Travelers nor do I even remember them. BUT, who’s to say that it wasn’t inspired by, imitated or emulated in affect of.

    True to the fact it is a very controversial subject. I will have to agree with your stance on the work as I am much more drawn to Mayhem than Risk after watching both. I think the potential now is far greater with the way the world has evolved digitally to see where this goes.

    I know that the writer who came up with the Mayhem idea is not much older than myself and may have missed the traveler spots all together. Then does that not make his idea unique? In addition he went to BYU and I believe he spent two years as a missionary where they are not allowed to watch TV.

    Did he even know he may have copied someone?

    The french wind spot was brilliant by the way and I really enjoyed getting to see that!

  8. owen said

    Ha. How does the fact that the “original” Risk, is pretty much a beautifully executed lift from Wings Of Desire figure in this discussion ? Homage? Where will it end? The snake? The tree? The apple?

  9. Van Gould said

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post (and the comments). It’s an interesting topic, especially for young creatives like myself who aren’t as familiar with the work of the past. All I can say is, the new Allstate campaign seems to be creating a lot of buzz for the brand. It might not be the most original idea, but it totally grabbed my attention the first time I saw it. A few minutes after that, I found myself getting a free quote from them online. Isn’t that what advertising is all about?

  10. R Mills said

    Ah, the old optionality debate. If I had a nickle for every time this ‘discussion’ came up in advertising, I’d have a dollar or two.

    Truth is, personification as a tool is far, far older than Travelers or Epuron or Allstate. Which means, they all must have ‘stolen’ the idea. Good thing origin doesn’t matter. All that really matters is each piece, standing on their own.

    With that said, in my humble opinion, these ads aren’t just good, they are great. And nothing before them or after them changes that fact for me.

  11. Whitey said

    Interesting post about an interesting topic. I agree with Roswell Thomas who said, “I think the Allstate ad goes in an appreciably different direction from Epuron or Travelers.”

    All three of these campaigns pulled from the same source material, none are fully original, but all are executed in a completely original way.

    Personally, I prefer the Allstate campaign’s execution. I say this because they created a single character that literally plays the part of the many things we encounter on a daily basis. The writing is sharp, the acting tremendous and I can see it’s legs. It is also the only of the three being done as a broader campaign with multiple executions while the other two are simple one offs. In other words, I feel like they did the most with it. I also love the Epuron ‘Wind’ spot. It’s execution was the purest form of personification in that it was literally the wind personified, nothing more or less. My least favorite execution of this idea of personification would be the Travelers spot. But this is based purely on preference. I simply don’t react as much to an invisible entity creating accidents that I can’t relate to.

    My point in critiquing each is to show that the originality of all three is in their executions, not in their source idea. If source idea mattered, all of these ads would be considered rip offs. But that’s why it’s not where an idea comes from, but what you do with it that matters. And as far as I’m concerned, Leo Burnett did a fantastic job with an age old idea.

  12. Come on said

    Hey Jonathan Hoffman
    no one who worked for you did this. Believe it or not you’ve been out of Burnett a long time. Who are you?

  13. Bill O'Really said

    Perhaps what I’m most amazed by–except of course for the number of people who think it’s ok to steal a campaign in the same category–is the number of people who think the Allstate work is better than the Epuron ad. I find the Wind ad a thousand times better. I actually believe that so little good work comes out of Burnett these days that people are overexcited about the Allstate work. It’s kind of like cheering too much for the uncoordinated kid who just got a bloop single in his t-ball game.

    • Roswell Thomas said

      Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think that the Epuron ad is by far the best of the group. The pacing is perfect — the initial shock of a man lifting a woman’s skirt and throwing sand in a little girl’s face grabbed me at the outset, and I watched it a couple more times after I figured out that this strange French giant was the wind personified. The riddle of personification is primarily what makes the spot engaging and memorable.

      Dean Winters, on the other hand, hits you (and your car) over the head with his personification: “I’m a random wind storm,” he says by way of introduction. You could argue that “Wind” relies more on the personification tradition/gimmick than “Mayhem,” which grabs your attention with Winters’ acting and the terrifying way his body crumples along with the cars he wrecks.

      So I definitely agree with the O’Really factor about Epuron being the best, but I think the differences that make it superior also excuse Leo Burnett from charges that they ripped it off. (Of course, it’s possible to make an inferior ripoff, but the differences are significant enough that I don’t think that’s what happened here, especially if this BYU guy missed a lot of commercials while he was on a mission and forbidden from watching TV — interesting insight, Ben.)

    • Ad Man said

      My reply is in no means an attempt to disrespect your opinion. But for arguments sake, I don’t think you are giving this work the credit it deserves. First of all, I think more than enough posters here have made more than a compelling argument as to why this ISN’T stealing an idea. Simply put, if Leo stole the idea, so did Fallon. END OF STORY! Unless you can somehow prove there was no personification before it. And the fact they were in the same category doesn’t mean anything. Neither of them came up with the idea, so neither have claim over it.

      Second, as a test I just showed these spots to four people outside of advertising. Normal people. They are educated, successful and opinionated. I asked them which they liked most and why. Three of them picked the Allstate work and they all said the same thing,”it was hilarious” and “It was #ucked up!” They also asked if there were others. So I searched and found a few that they loved too (the deer and the teenage girl being the overall favorites). The remaining person picked the Epuron spot (which I picked as well FYI) because it was, “Witty and entertaining”. And I would add that I like it because it has an elegance to it that is fantastic. (I should also note, they all liked all of the spots quite a bit. Nothing negative at all. They just liked those ones most.)

      I know this is far from conclusive, but I think it helps show that this is REALLY GOOD advertising. And while I personally like the Epuron spot the most, I can’t deny how good this new campaign is ESPECIALLY for Allstate.

      Long story short. Advertising is for “the people”. And guess what, “the people” don’t care about where things came from. I am in no way saying you should agree. I respect your opinion. I really do. But I full heartedly disagree with it.

  14. Bill O'Really said

    One other thing. After Mayhem falls from the tree, the spiel he delivers is pretty awful and totally breaks character. Why in the hell would Mayhem shill? Wouldn’t he just want to cause mayhem? Wouldn’t he be delighted if people weren’t prepared for him? Not very well thought out at all.

    • Guest said

      Bill, let’s try taking the hate-filled criticism down a notch. I looked through the posts on this topic and realized that between this entry and the other, you are persinally responsible for the vast majority of the negative posts. Your opinion is already well documented and noted.

      Personally, i dont agree with you. But that doesnt matter. So let’s just agree to disagree. I for one will take each on their own merit and move on. I like the travlers work, I love the wind spot and I love the new allstate work. And I agree with whoever said it’s nice to see great work come from Chicago. And yes, i consider this great work. What about it?

  15. Guest said

    And about the end. Again we’ll have to agree to disagree. I see this mayhem guy as a live demo of the things that could happen. That’s why I actually like it. He shows me a specific situation that proves why I need insurance and then tells me what to do about it. So in response, I think it’s very well thought out. It’s basically a freash take on the roles of a spokesman. It’s very smart if you ask me.

    • Roswell Thomas said

      Bill makes a good point that the classic personification of Mayhem wouldn’t shill; I was worried about that, but not before he pointed it out. Something feels OK about him selling insurance after he spits pieces of bark out of his mouth, and I think Guest’s comment about his spokesman status does a great deal to explain why. This isn’t pure personification, since the real Mayhem wouldn’t look in the camera and say, “I’m a hot babe jogging” in a gruff man’s voice while wearing a dirty suit. Mayhem here “breaks the fourth wall” in a way that makes it feel acceptable for him to shill a bit — he’s sort of a half villain, half spokesperson. I’m not sure if I’ve articulated that properly but it definitely comes across as feeling acceptable to me in the ad…

  16. Bill O'Really said

    Guest, I like the work. My comments began because I felt it was a little overpraised considering how derivative it is. Compare this to the Old Spice stuff from Wieden and you can see the difference between originality and creative regurgitation. You’re right about the average person not caring, but the authors of a campaign should care–if they ripped it off they know and they’ll carry that with them. If they didn’t it’s just an accident of sorts.

  17. Bill O'Really said

    Ad Man, your logic blows btw. If Leo stole it, Fallon stole it, etc. I know the ad biz is low on morals, but you take the cake. Stealing someone’s ideas, when they make a living from those ideas, is reprehensible. And, if an agency is so desperate they have to” borrow” an idea that was done in their own category just a few years before, how creative are they in the first place? Again, compare this to an agency like Wieden that creates things like Old Spice and the Nike World Cup film.

  18. Morgan said

    I feel you may have misunderstood what Ad Man was saying, I believe he was saying the idea of personification is far older than Fallon, which means Leo could not have stolen the idea from them. In turn, if you insist on arguing that Leo did steal it from them, Fallon then must have stolen it as well because they didn’t invent it either. It’s a valid point that I feel you misrepresented.

    And I completely agree with Roswell Thomas and Guest who disused the nature of the character. He is not a classic form of personification, but an interesting mixture of bad guy and spokesman. It’s brilliant to me and more than enough proof in itself that is far from a stolen idea. In fact, I think this is actually the most original usage of the personification tool of the bunch.

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