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February 18, 2010
Thirsting for Originality

Does it really matter when produced ads or concepts are similar?

Sometime last week, advertising’s fracas du jour erupted over the similarities between a Coca-Cola ad created by Wieden + Kennedy which aired in the Super Bowl and a Yotvata chocolate milk ad created by an agency in Israel nine years ago. Both spots feature a sleepwalker who goes great lengths to find Coke/milk with Ravel’s “Bolero” playing in the background. Although the Coke ad was a minute long, one person edited 23 seconds of both spots side by side, and in that context, the Coke spot looks like a shot-by-shot copy of the milk spot.

It’s just the latest example of similar ideas being used in ads, which has long been a sticky subject among advertising creatives. So where’s the line between similarity and copycat? Is there a way to prove theft of ideas in the advertising business? What’s the real harm here?

The Internet has allowed us to see and access a world of ideas and concepts. Literally. As a result, there are Web sites and blogs dedicated to finding copycat ads and commercials.

It’s not hard to find similarities in ads these days. The simpler an ad is, or the less elements it has (say, a print ad based on a no-headline visual solution), the greater likelihood it may be thought of by many people in different points in time. Frankly, it’s not hard to look at any ad with images and copy and be reminded of something else, even if it’s a stretch.

I have no idea whether the Coke spot was an intentional copy, or just an uncanny similarity. Frankly, when dozens of people are involved in the concepting, approval, storyboarding, filming, editing, and post-production of a million-dollar TV spot, anything is possible. To me, it doesn’t matter that a well-lauded ad agency is involved. People at great agencies like Wieden are as human, fallible, and capable of misdeeds as anyone else. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions.

In the world of commercial art -- advertising, design, music, TV, film, and architecture -- there’s very little that hasn’t been previously done in some form, at some point. In advertising, creative people look to those other forms of art for inspiration -- and yes, appropriation.

Sometimes, big money is at stake in disputes over art. George Harrison was sued because “My Sweet Lord” sounded similar to The Chiffons’ "He’s So Fine.” In its decision, the court ruled in part: His subconscious knew it already had worked in a song his conscious did not remember ... That is, under the law, infringement of copyright and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.” (Actually, that’s good. Try blaming your subconscious the next time your creative director tells you, "That’s already been done," when you present a concept.)

In the case of the Coke/Yotvata commercials, no one loses because of these similarities, or do they? Although they’re both for drinks, we’re talking about ads run in different countries in different years. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that creative success -- in the form of awards, promotions, and money -- comes from getting proper credit for work done. Hypothetically, if an Israeli creative who worked on the Yotvata spot shows his or her reel to someone in America, it may be a problem when someone looking to hire that person is only familiar with the Coke spot, despite doing the milk ad 10 years earlier.

Frankly, most clients don’t care about whether an ad contains some sort of truly original concept. They’re not the ones with an encyclopedic knowledge of what ran in California years ago or what’s running in another country. They’ve got their own problems, like sales, market share, stock prices, and their competition to worry about. Clients want answers to their marketing issues, period. As long as they don’t get sued, most won’t give a crap where the inspiration for an idea came from.

There will be more instances like Coke/Yotvata in the future, not less. Timelines for producing ads are getting shorter, leaving less time for creatives to dive deeper conceptually. More and more advertising people find inspiration by searching Google images and other sites rather than their own surroundings and environment. Unless you cut yourself off from the Internet and other media, you're simply being exposed to more and more ads continually. Produced ads with similar ideas are out there -- and if you’re that determined to find them, you will.

If you’re in an agency, the best thing you can do is encourage original thinking from yourself and your co-workers. The kind of thinking that requires more time to explore ideas and inspiration that doesn’t come ready-made from the Internet. With the understanding that more thought, nuance, and precision can help a good idea evolve into a great one. If you’re a client, insist on seeing things you wouldn’t expect, even if it’s just an unusual idea for your business category.

However, that still won’t stop similar ideas from being produced time to time by different agencies. Fortunately, we live in a short-term memory society. Even as you read this several days after I’ve written it, any controversy over these two spots will likely be forgotten.

That’s the wonderfully screwy thing about the ad industry. Even copycat ideas provide something new and original for people to obsess over.


To see an edited, side-by-side version of the spots mentioned in this article, click here



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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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