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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The music matters…

When I was coming up at Leo Burnett one of the creative leaders there was a man by the name of Jack Smith. At the time I didn’t much care for his idea of what comprised great creative. Primarily, because he was so fixated on music. Be it jingle or sound design, Jack was focused on delivering the magic via audio. For some of us this approach seemed hackneyed or, at best, a secondary concern. Those that knew… knew jingles were loathsome. Music was something you did in post.

Jack used to say good music could deliver bad film, or something similar. I thought he was crazy. To me, relying on music to “make” a commercial meant you didn’t have much of a commercial to make. Shooting and cutting film (so-called vignettes) to accommodate a music track was advertising at its worst. Ironically, my employer was known for doing just that. With clients like Kellogg’s, McDonalds and other big name packaged goods, music driven vignettes were the preferred form at Leo Burnett. And nobody did ‘em better. To be sure, a lot of agencies tried: DDB, JWT, TLK to name a few… My point? It felt like I was a minority, turning my nose up and ears off.

That said, you can’t work at Burnett as long as I did and not learn the form. Before my tenure was over I’d written several jingles as well as scored popular music for a Heinz TV commercial. Remember John Astley’s minor hit, Jane’s getting Serious? Listen for it in the spot below. Yes, that’s Joey from Friends. Laugh all you want. That spot won me a Gold Lion at Cannes. Only recently have I come to realize how important the music was in “making” the commercial. I’ve also come to realize Jack was really on to something.

Music matters.

While I still find most jingles distasteful, it’s clear music & sound design is profoundly important to the integrity (and popularity) of a commercial piece of film. Let’s look again at Heinz Catsup. Years before my spot, they’d ran a campaign using songstress, Carly Simon’s breathless hit, Anticipation.

Undoubtedly, you remember the campaign. The song perfectly seized upon a great truth about the brand: it took damn long to pour but was worth the wait. Most of us can place the song with the brand. The marriage was almost iconic. But can any of you recall the commercial itself? Not for the life of me. Only the music endures.

Fact is music has more staying power than film. Think about it. Most people watch even the greatest movies only once…maybe twice. Meanwhile, we may own thousands of songs, listening to many of them daily. Jack knew this, which is why he was so passionate about using music in commercials. Whether it’s a screw in the brain or an awesome classic: music got hooks!

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Sound design: Cliff Colnot

“Super Size this you clown!”

According to Wikipedia, “the ‘Happy Meal’ was the brainchild of St. Louis, Missouri advertising manager Dick Brams, who in 1977 contracted both Kansas City-based advertising firm Bernstein-Rein and Stolz Advertising Company of St. Louis to develop a children’s meal that would promote McDonald’s as a restaurant for families.”

The scheme was brilliant, if obvious: for a discounted price, combine sandwiches with side dishes and throw in a drink. Adding a toy (a la Cracker Jack) made it killer. The McDonald’s Happy Meal was born. If fast food wasn’t already addictive to children, Happy Meals sealed the deal. Not since “Drive Thru” had quick serve restaurants (QSRs) something so proprietary.

Other QSRs followed suit and now every one of them has myriad meal ensembles with copyrighted names: The BK Value Menu… Wendy’s Classic Combos… Yes, there are now “Value Meals” and “Combo Deals” and “Super Value Combo Deals!” Some are “Fresh To-Go” or “Go Active!” Or even “Fresh Fit for Kids.” Taco Bell offers a “Why Pay More Value Menu.” as well as “Diet Drive-Thru.” And on and on and on…

Enough already! I’m sick of marketers coining insipid phrases to sum up food pairings. Aren’t you? Cute, copyrighted clichés have run their course. They are noise pollution. Cultural debris. And ever so annoying.

I know they perform a function. I get it. But I also find such monikers cloying and crass. Not to sound elitist but doesn’t a Super-Size © Extra-Value Meal© make you think of ghettos and trailer parks?

Another aspect that bugs the crap out of me is when these names are used incorrectly as language, especially in ad copy. For example: using “super size” as a verb. Or when the TV announcer uses “Fresh-Fit-For-Kids-Value-Meal” as a compound noun. Drives me crazy! People aren’t supposed to talk like that.

I also find it degrading that advertisers assume people need or want catchy names to describe their lunch. Like we can’t order a meal without helper words. I understand why it might be helpful to list complicated, strange dishes by number in a Chinese restaurant. But a burger and fries? Come on…

And don’t get me started on the pointless “money saving” popcorn and coke combinations they peddle at the movies. I do not need or want the extra gigantic soda, even if it is only fifty cents more.

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I'll have what she's having!

I'll have what she's having!

We are what we eat.

Not just food as the adage was intended, but media too. The books we read (or don’t read), the movies we watch, websites we bookmark, TV shows, news, music, our growing collection of “friends” on Facebook. And so on.

All of this is stuff we consume on a daily basis, every waking moment really.

And then there’s advertising. Not only do we consume it, we make it. But unlike bakers of bread, we don’t make ads to be consumed but rather to facilitate the consumption of something else. Or do we?

Many of my peers believe advertising is an end product. Sometimes I do too. A viral gets watched thousands of times it’s successful. A commercial film wins a creative prize it, too, is successful. We tend to tack on results, real or otherwise, as an afterthought, kind of like the sprig of parsley near the steak.

Alas, advertising wasn’t invented to be the steak. Barnum and Bailey understood this. The Greatest Show on Earth! Advertising was intended to be the sizzle; the promise a product or service might deliver.

Nobody goes to McDonalds and orders the clown. Or do they?

Things change. People now clamor for the sensational posters of the bearded lady. They may cost thousands of dollars at auction. The actual lady? Not so much. The propaganda for the circus became more enticing than the circus itself. The advent of graphic design and post modernism changed the world, and, needless to say, our business.

We makers of ads have gone through the looking glass. The Burger King Whopper is exactly the same sandwich but –and I use their own word- the “hoopla” created for it by Crispin Porter & Bogusky is even bigger. The disturbing “King” became a consumable property. Video games. Viral stunts. People started buying the clown!

That is the not-so-secret wish of every creative I know. And I think it might be coming true. The stuff we make became a product. I’ve heard the smartest, most famous people in our business say this.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Or am I just high?

images1Believe in something better or burn forever!

“Believe in something better,” exhorts the US Cellular campaign from Publicis & Hal Riney. My former colleague and good friend, Jamie King currently works at the agency, so this post is not meant as a critique good or bad. Yet, it got me thinking.

In my new novel, The Happy Soul Industry God hires an ad agency to market Heaven. The fictional agency comes up with a pretty good campaign, which I won’t get into here. (Read the book!) It dawns on me, however, that the US Cellular copy would do nicely as well!

Heaven. Believe in something better.

Not bad, right? One could argue it serves Heaven better than a phone company!

Come to think of it, a lot of tag lines seem like they could serve a “higher purpose” than the ones they were designed for. Off the top of my head I thought of the following:

Just do it. The most famous tag line can be in Heaven as it is on Earth. The pronoun “it” becomes even riper. Does it mean praying, sharing, doing the next right thing? God only knows.

It’s the Real Thing. Coke’s classic mantra feels cool again when discussing the unknown. Could Heaven be real? Of course it is!

Think Different. Time to stop thinking about only yourself for a change! If you’re an atheist, agnostic or just plain cynical, here’s a phrase to get you right sized again.

I’m Loving it! Oh my God does this ever work. Super size my soul, brother! Eternal life. Do you want fries with that?

Share the Good. Are you kidding me? This one is perfect. Heineken currently beseeches beer drinkers to share the good. Maybe they need a higher power instead. Hello AA.

Responsibility. What’s your policy? This ode to right thinking by Liberty Mutual lines up nicely with Heaven. The creative itself is pretty darn holy. You could run it as is, only changing the logo.

Crazy, eh? Look how many brands advertise as if they were selling God or Heaven or, at any rate, something pretty darn special. In fact, the long running “God Speaks” campaign actually pretends to be the voice of God.


Can you think of other secular advertising that would translate heavenly? Post them here.

On this blog, and in The Happy Soul Industry, I explore the relationship between good and evil in advertising. These campaigns are provocative evidence that it is a very relevant topic.