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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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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The best marketing in 2009 did not arrive via new media. It wasn’t a so-called “viral.” Nor was it “consumer driven.” It was an ad and it came in the form of a TV commercial –you remember those?

The best advertising in 2009 wasn’t edgy or ironic. Frankly, it was anything but. Our deserving winner was old-fashioned, easy going and pleasant. Driven by classical music. Sedate.

Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Droga 5, Mother or BBH didn’t produce the best advertising in 2009. While those shops made lots of fine work they did not create the finest. Nope. The best ad in 2009 was made by one of the biggest, oldest advertising agencies in the world: Ogilvy & Mather.

Appropriately, this terrific TV commercial wasn’t for a hip technology brand or the latest new, new thing. As a matter of fact, the best advertising in 2009 was for something more associated with last century than this one.

Without further ado, the best advertising in 2009 was the “Smiles” campaign for the American Express card.

Shot by Kevin Thomas for O&M in New York, I can think of no piece of creative I admired more in 2009. Two months ago I wrote about the campaign in detail. Fittingly, that post (Amex review) continues to be one of the more popular stories on my blog. The comments it received are universally praiseful.

Likewise, my young daughters shriek with delight whenever the commercials appear in our living room. In this respect the spots are more popular than even Spongebob Squarepants.

It gives me great pleasure to close by stating the most shocking thing about this campaign is how utterly un-shocking it is. Will it win gold in Cannes? Probably not. And that wouldn’t shock me either.

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While I struggle to understand the relevance of American Express in our modern world I absolutely adore their new TV campaign, which I’m calling “Smile.” These spots have been running for several months now and yet I stop everything to watch when one comes on. Don’t you? The imagery is, in a word, lovely. Not in a baroque way but pure, unfettered and almost childlike in it’s simplicity. A series of inanimate objects appear, first depicting sad faces, which then become smiling faces. A soothing voiceover addresses our fears regarding credit card purchases and then assuages them. Throughout we hear the hypnotic Cello Suite No. 1 by Sebastian Bach.

That’s it. No special effects. No celebrities. Nothing but inanimate objects subtly propped to mimic smiley faces. While there are no actual people in the commercials these spots illicit more humanity than just about anything on the air. They are masterpieces.

Appropriately, it was my 11 year-old daughter who first brought the campaign to my attention. She asked me if I’d done it (alas, no), telling me it was her favorite TV commercial. A month later I got the same question from an in-law over Thanksgiving dinner. She, too, adored the campaign.

I believe this is the work of Ogilvy & Mather in New York, though my online searches failed to produce credits. Yet, everyone responsible deserves praise: the writer, the art director and especially the director. (If anyone can provide names please do.)

The last time I was so moved by an ad campaign was when Saturn launched “a different kind of Car Company.”  Then as now the awesome power of TV proved itself without so much as breaking a sweat.

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. In my novel, The Happy Soul Industry God wants an ad campaign to market Heaven. Something like this would’ve done quite nicely!

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