Rip-off spotting

`Trainspotting' was the movie to see in 1996, and the film's poster has fast become one of the most `imitated' ads of all time. Why? By Meg Carter
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The Independent Online
The youth sprawls on the bed while the blonde giggles as she chats on her mobile phone. Behind them, a Channel 5 re-tuner adjusts the TV set (which is playing an episode of Friends). On the wall, next to a picture of the Spice Girls and a cardboard cut-out of Pamela Anderson, hangs a poster for Trainspotting. Welcome to the teenage bedroom of 1997, the current edition of Sky magazine declares before introducing the same room decked out for 2007. The girl now sports a barcode on her arm; the boy a virtual-reality headset. And 10 years later, the Trainspotting ad's still there.

It was the movie to see in 1996 and this year's video to buy. The soundtrack was great. And the poster is a must - a clear declaration of cool by any self-respecting teen or twentysomething. Hardly surprising, then, that the Trainspotting poster is fast becoming one of the most ripped-off ads of all time. Sports shoes, clothes shops, recruitment consultants, even West End musicals have been inspired by its distinctive monochrome photography, the protagonists' poses (replete with pre-millennial angst) and striking orange typography.

Latest to join the fray is Richard Branson. His new train company, Virgin Trains, last week launched a centralised train booking service with a poster featuring the bearded wonder in four of the original five characters' rebellious poses (he does us the favour of not appearing as the girl in the white dress) above the strapline: "Trainbooking". "Tongue in cheek" and "homage" are Virgin Train spokesman's John Morris' defence. "Railway advertising in the past has tended to be staid," he adds with sublime understatement.

Branson, apparently, checked first with Trainspotting's distributor, PolyGram, before launching its ad. Others were not so cautious. Last year, the recruitment specialists Hoskyns Group ran magazine ads featuring staff members pictured in black and white standing in Trainspotting pose above the line (in orange type, of course): "Trainerspotting". It was forced to withdraw the campaign. As was the sports chain Cobra Sports which designed a poster above the same line and featuring monochrome pictures of sports shoes.

French Connection developed a campaign around the idea of "Salespotting". Starlight Express also cashed in with a poster designed to update its appeal to younger audiences. And there was even rumoured to be a Labour Party version of the Trainspotting poster waiting in the wings before election day. The plan was to wheel it out if the youth vote was looking weak. As things turned out, Labour didn't need it.

Needless to say, the advertising industry has never been shy of ripping off a good idea. But why Trainspotting? And what exactly is the pay-off? "There was synergy between our consumer market and the film," says Jonathan Armstrong at Cobra Sports, designer of the "Trainerspotting" poster. The initial idea was to use pictures of Hugh Grant and OJ Simpson in the style of the poster for the film The Usual Suspects he explains. This was dropped in favour of featuring shoes. "It hit the right nerve. People who buy sports shoes are often addicted to it."

It's a good way to raise quick interest, adds Robert Campbell, joint creative director at the agency behind the Virgin Trains campaign, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe: "I'm all for ripping off people's fame, and that poster certainly has it. It has great graphics. And it superbly catches the Zeitgeist of the movie and the time."

Others are more circumspect. "We weren't seeking to imitate Trainspotting," says Chris Macleod, managing director of advertising agency Collett Dickenson Pearce whose latest commercial for McEwan's Lager echoes the edgy style of the film with urban characters filmed going to the pub, shot in black and white, and each introduced by nicknames shown in colour captions.

"After all, some of the content you just wouldn't want to be associated with," he adds. "What you do want is to tie in with the irreverence, the camaraderie, the people having a good time - rather than the seedier drug elements."

So what exactly are advertisers buying into? "Instant cool," according to Mark Frith, editor of Sky magazine. "The original poster is on the edge. It's heroin chic. Like Calvin Klein - enigmatic, cool and somewhat fried."

Now a staple requirement for student walls throughout the land, the poster is easy to identify with and, more important, easy to copy.

However, imitation is a contentious advertising practice. First there's the issue of copyright. PolyGram remains surprisingly tight-lipped, although an insider confides: "Obviously, it's a brilliant campaign. And lots of people don't have much imagination." Then the effect of the association on the product, or brand. "Advertising that rips of other people's properties may be a good stunt, but it's not effective for longer-term brand building," Campbell cautions. Frith cuts straight to the point: "Overdo it and you instantly import naffness."

The movie peaked six months after launch, he says. Although it still enjoys cult status, advertisers copying its style and look already risk appearing outdated. "What people are really interested in now is the next Trainspotting," he says. A Life Less Ordinary, perhaps - the Trainspotting team's next venture, starring Ewan Macgregor.

Surprisingly, one of the creators of the original poster is all for the continuation of this advertising trend. "Let's face it, it is the greatest form of flattery," says Steve Burdge, managing director of Empire Design. "At the end of the day, the film is still showing in cinemas and selling on video. The cross-promotion keeps it fresh in people's minds. Which can only be good news for us and the film."