Claire Beale on Advertising
When it comes to plagiarism, how many adverts are truly original?
Monday 15 October 2007
"About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment": so said the aptly named 19th-century humorist Josh Billings. Fallon might agree.
Fallon is the ad agency behind "Play-Doh", the new Sony Bravia ad that was last week's "Best in Show" in this column. You'll have seen it by now: colourful bunnies bouncing round New York. But have you seen the art work at the centre of the plagiarism row?
A couple of LA-based artists who call themselves Kozyndan are known for their illustrations of, erm, colourful bunnies bouncing round New York. And it hasn't taken long for someone in adland to spot the similarity.
Debate about whether "Play-Doh" might be a rip-off has raged on the web. Apparently, Kozyndan were asked to send their portfolio over to Passion Pictures, the animation company behind the Sony ads. So they sent their work off. And that was it – they didn't hear anything back. Then last week, the ad came out, and Kozyndan got that tingle of familiarity. Take a look at the "original" at kozyndan.livejournal.com to make up your own mind about how similar it is.
So, rip-off or not? Now, let's be frank, lovers of advertising though we all are, how many ads are truly original? Folksy soundtracks, swirly lines, stuff falling from the skies: we've seen it all this year, ad nauseam. Adland is at its most comfortable when it's herding. That's what advertising does: it riffs from popular culture then drives it in deeper by regurgitating it over and over.
Adland's annals are littered with claims of plagiarism. The Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing felt ripped off by a VW ad in the Nineties. Guinness was accused of copying a test film made by director Mehdi Norowzian. The original Sony Bravia ad, "Balls", was strikingly similar to a skit on America's The Late Show with David Letterman. And on and on and on.
Does it really matter? There's nothing legally wrong with taking inspiration from another artist's work. Crudely put, copyright only kicks in if you reproduce exactly a part of that work.
The most effective ads tap into popular culture, hit a nerve. It's the same with art. No surprise, then, that the two have a symbiotic relationship. Maybe Fallon did see the Kozyndan work. Maybe it did inspire the "Play-Doh" ad. Maybe the artists deserve a name check/cheque. Either way, a lot more people have now heard of Kozyndan than before, which can't be bad for their business.
Talk about a week being a long time in politics. Seven days ago, I wrote about poor David Cameron's inability to find an advertising agency. Back then, with the prospect of an election looming and Gordon Brown smugly snuggled up to Saatchi & Saatchi, the Tories were adrift in the advertising stakes as well as the political ones. But now that Brown has bottled an election, Cameron has had a comeback in the polls, and an ad agency has bravely emerged to take on the Tory account.
Euro RSCG is the agency that has accepted the Tory challenge. It was already in place to capitalise on Brown's decision to delay putting his party before the voters. Did you see the stunt that the Conservatives pulled with protesters dressed up as Brown bottles jeering at Gordon's wimpishness? Silly stuff, but deftly executed, and it captured the headlines.
Mind you, I'm not entirely sure that Euro's new-ish London management team (Mark Cadman, Russ Lidstone and Mark Hunter) were desperately chasing this account. All the enthusiastic quotes about the win have come from the agency's global or group chiefs; perhaps packaging Toryism isn't quite what Cadman and Lidstone had in mind when they took on the Euro turnaround task.
Still, could the Tories have picked a more aptly named ad partner? Euro has created a new division just to handle the party's advertising: Euro Referendum. But the real disappointment is that we'll probably have to wait two years until Saatchis and Euros go head to head in an election battle. Both agencies desperately need more creative and new business success, and the profile conferred by an election campaign could rocket-fuel their ambitions. Two years is a life/death time in advertising.
Ad agencies love league tables, particularly when they're doing well in them. In the UK, the most crucial is the annual tally of the biggest agencies in the country. Historically, mighty JWT has sat in the No 2 spot, snapping at the Manolos of Farah Ramzan Golant, the chief executive of the UK's biggest agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
But unofficial early figures suggest that JWT has lost its second-place ranking after some major client fallout last year, including Vodafone and Reckitt Benckiser. JWT has had a turbulent time; now, just as it seemed to be getting back on an even keel, news that it's slipping down the league will pick at old wounds.
It's an emotional blow rather than a fiscal one. Everyone knows the rankings are based on a superficial count of how much an agency's clients are spending on traditional advertising. These days, any agency worth its six-figure bills will be sweating over work that has nothing to do with making traditional ads. Beattie McGuinness Bungay is designing the livery for a fleet of Boeing 787s; Clemmow Hornby Inge is doing a similar job for National Express coaches; you get the idea.
Even so, if JWT does end the year sliding down the table, it will have some serious soul-searching to do. In adland, image matters, and an agency on the way down has few friends.
Where JWT is scoring some real points is in rediscovering (or at least re-marketing) its superb planning heritage. Simply put, planning is the insight and understanding that agencies bring to bear on a client's business and communications issues. JWT (along with BMP) was the birthplace of planning, and a standard-bearer of the discipline over the last four decades.
Credit for that heritage lies with one man, Stephen King. Last week, JWT published a small pamphlet containing one of King's most seminal papers on advertising: "What is a Brand?". The pamphlet is a foretaste of an impending book, which will gather together King's thoughts with comments from his 21st-century successors.
Anyway, one of King's real legacies is his clear perception that advertising and marketing are not ends in themselves, but part of a business equation focused on profits. As the advertising industry struggles to make the case for its contribution to our national economic health and businesses' long-term success, King's teachings are more important than ever. Perhaps his approach also holds a key to a change in fortunes for the agency he helped to put on the UK map.
Beale's best in show ladbrokes (m&C Saatchi)
Funny how a government that worries about kids seeing ads for cheese has just sanctioned an advert that encourages the rest of us to gamble ourselves into penury.
So in rushes Ladbrokes with its first salvo in the battle to bring gambling to the masses. Mind you, while gambling ads are new, there's something rather familiar about this week's ad. Ian Wright. In how many commercials can one celeb appear before viewers begin to get confused, irritated, both? My guess is that Wright, who is currently also taking the Asda and Kellogg's ad shilling, will prove a good test case.
And it's not just Wright that seems familiar. Sports stars pretending to be real people in ads: well, it's clearly this season's thing. Think Des Lynam on the pie stall for Setanta. And it all began with last year's brilliant Carlsberg Pub Team ad from Saatchi & Saatchi.
Anyway, Ladbrokes serves up Wright, Ally McCoist, Lee Dixon and Chris Kamara as builders in a caff, all beanies, vests and footie banter. It's by M&C Saatchi, and it's lovingly scripted, the stars aren't half bad considering they're more used to talking with their feet, and football fans will drink it in. Nothing very original (of course), but it's funny, warm and gives betting a friendly face. Mind you, if you thought bookies were for sweaty blokes with nowhere better to go on a Saturday afternoon, I'm not sure that this ad will change your mind.
Claire Beale is the editor of Campaign magazine
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