EDITORIAL: Adland reveals its double standards

The process of getting creative ideas in advertising takes many forms. Some people get them on the bus to work. Some doodle, some juggle, others drink beer. Some may be blessed, as Archimedes was, in the bath. Others may have their eureka moment thanks to watching an award-winning 1987 short film by a pair of Swiss artists and combining that with childhood references from films and TV credits.

This week, the global advertising industry decamps to the ridiculously expensive playground of the Cannes Advertising Festival. With Honda UK's "cog" commercial by Wieden & Kennedy, inspired in part by those Swiss artists, tipped to pick up one of the top prizes, it seems appropriate to take a stand here on the topic of borrowing ideas.

Perhaps the issue is that there is no real issue at all. Many of the most successful advertisements of recent years have been acknowledged references to the work of other artists. Levi's Flat Eric took the work of a French techno musician and harnessed it to commercial effect. And the story is not new. Contrary to myth, Coca-Cola's classic "I'd like to teach the world to sing" did not begin life as a jingle. It was first a record, an unsuccessful outing by an unknown group, and later, with the backing of McCann-Erickson New York, re-recorded by David McKay with the New Seekers.

Such examples bear testament to the marriage of convenience between music and other art forms and advertising. To pretend that advertising should not take references from what its practitioners see around them is as naive as it is unworkable.

Indeed, most agencies take the referencing of their ads by other advertisers as a compliment. Request the 2002 Levi's "odyssey" commercial from a library and you're now likely to get sent no fewer than seven tapes, all pastiches of the much-honoured commercial and variously advertising Sky Sports, Lilt, Cartoon Network, HMV and others. Agencies realise that a good spoof offers a unique opportunity for audience contact - one that rests on humour but that can also pack a hefty punch.

And yet not all parties feel the same way. The recent attempts by O2 to reference the Sony PlayStation symbol and by WCRS to spoof the Honda "cog" commercial itself have ended up in court. But wouldn't it be more palatable if advertising learned to take it as well as it can give it out? Playing the argument from both ends towards the middle smacks of hypocrisy.

Topics