The ambivalence in my lead is based on mitigating factors I will get to. First some praise. These new GE commercials are more than TV spots they are truly short films, carefully and wonderfully produced. Every element has been rendered at the highest level of craft. Listen to Beck’s score, for example, how it gently but persuasively pushes our buttons, keying in on what is humanly relevant and even profound. Making us feel the message.

Not to be a shill for GE or its ad agency, BBDO but I could easily rhapsodize about any aspect of these commercials. The casting. The writing. The cinematography. Like them or not, anyone who knows anything about production will recognize the obvious care (and cost) that went into making these commercials. BBDO has long been known for it’s prowess in making exemplary TV campaigns, and these will do nothing to hurt that reputation.

Tonally, both commercials remind me of certain odd, brave feature films that, like them or not, are deserving of praise. Spike Jonze’s award winning film, Her. And the decidedly more flawed but fascinating Luc Besson feature, Lucy. Vaguely unsettling but ultimately heart-wrenching stories of technology, people and the mysteries of life are what propel those films and these commercials.

The comparison is more obvious with Her. Its quirky yet deeply intimate style is, in my view, exactly what the filmmakers of the GE commercials were going for. I chose Lucy because, despite a dubious concept and being silly around the edges, it shoots for the stars and damn near gets there. Lucy is fresh and interesting film. It’s not boring. It tried hard to rise above its genre and B-movie pedigree. Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson certainly helped.

Likewise, these commercials try harder than most. Way more.

That said I am struggling with how similar the GE Scary Ideas film is conceptually to the attached German commercial for Epuron, The Power of Wind, which won countless awards in 2007-08, including top honors in Cannes. You can’t tell me BBDO’s savvy creative leadership were unawares. I’m certain they not only knew about Wind but likely set about emulating it. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Ten years ago I would have called it plagiarism. Now, I’m not sure the term even applies. Is it iteration or a rip off?

Yet, whatever quarrel we may have conceptually or otherwise, we all need to appreciate a client and an agency that tries and unequivocally succeeds at doing something interesting. Period.

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Before…


After…

Recently, Goodby Silverstein & Partners changed their logo. Shortly thereafter, someone came forward via Agency Spy indicating the logo was essentially a direct copy of another company’s mark. It should be mentioned the original logo was created a century ago. Nevertheless, people were quick to accuse GS&P of plagiarism. This ugly debate led Rich Silverstein to issue a memo stating that the “appropriation” was “100% intentional.” That memo found itself on, you guessed it, Agency Spy and, as one might imagine, a slew of mostly critical opinions followed.

Plagiarism 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 happened when I chose my favorite campaign of 2011. Ironic history repeating itself when I talk of plagiarism.

Wikipedia’s definition of plagiarism, which in turn is ‘plagiarized’ from “other dictionaries” is as follows: the “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.

By that definition the logo was plagiarized. But then things get interesting. Wikipedia states, “with the boom of the modernist and postmodern movements in the 20th century, this practice has been heightened as a central and representative artistic device,” concluding that “plagiarism remains tolerated by 21st century artists.”

Sigh. This is a tricky debate on so many levels, many of them covered in the myriad (mostly mean) comments following the Agency Spy posts as well as my own.

While I agree with Richard Silverstein that “sampling” has become a big part of popular culture (and this argument is not to be taken lightly) I also agree that his agency copied. And as we were all taught in second grade, copying is wrong.

So, what’s a girl to do, especially if that girl is a copywriter looking at old advertising annuals for inspiration or a creative director looking at work?

I think the key is what was added or changed to build on the original idea. If sampled music becomes part of a new thing it’s not plagiarism, like when Run DMC appropriated the lyrics and licks to Aerosmith’s Walk this Way. (That Aerosmith was in on the remix further diminishes any argument against it.) Yet, when Lady GaGa channeled Madonna in her hit, Born this Way it felt like a shameless rip off. In this context the difference is obvious. One is okay and the other not so much.

Advertising (and design) is another animal, however. Are not the white lines grayer than with art? I still think my “building on” theory applies, which suggests Goodby crossed the line…unless, of course, you believe in a statute of limitations. Like I said: tricky.


“Wind”


“Risk”


“Mayhem”

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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