Originality can be a disconcertingly elusive attribute. Art
historians like Gombrich have pretty much put paid to any lofty romantic
view of the artist plucking original thoughts out of the air as and when
their muse visits.
The achievements of the artist are, it seems, much more prosaic. They
innovate within the boundaries of their existing culture.
Everything to which they are exposed instantly becomes part of their
overall artistic tradition. Their originality is, therefore, chiefly
apparent in subtle shifts within that tradition.
It’s a theory that could have been developed with the ad industry in
mind. Homage, parody, imitation - the holy trinity of advertising
creativity gets the green light. But has it all now gone too far?
Take, for example, the Nissan Micra ad that imitates a famous scene from
the cult movie, Betty Blue. In the ad, as in the film, a gorgeous young
woman throws the entire contents of the beach house she shares with a
lover out on to the sand. Alternatively, look at the Stella Artois
series that, through the use of music and cinematography, recreates the
feel of the movies adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s Provencal tales. These
are fondly remembered, well loved campaigns. But are they evidence that
the ad agencies responsible have run out of creative juice?
For an altogether more contentious offering look at GGT TBWA Simons
Palmer’s current campaign for Strongbow cider. Its ’live to loaf’ line
and celebration of slacker culture apparently owes more than a little to
the work of the Idler magazine over the past five years.
Yet TBWA’s creative director, Trevor Beattie, told Campaign when the ad
was launched that it was, ’introducing a philosophy on life’. Well,
’I think there is a clear distinction between the sort of humorous
parodies agencies often do and the cases where they simply pass off
other people’s work. Quite often they pick on individuals who they know
aren’t going to cause any problems to them,’ points out Gillian Wearing,
the Turner Prize-winning artist who has accused BMP DDB of using her
idea for its new Volkswagen Golf commercials (Campaign, 12 June). ’For
instance, there are those Peugeot ads that started out as a parody of
Thelma and Louise and worked very well. But they were referring to a
film seen all over the world that was quite able to stand up to that
sort of treatment. I’m not as well known as that.’
More galling still is that Wearing had actually welcomed approaches from
the advertising world, and had met with and exchanged ideas with a
handful of agencies after the award of this year’s Turner Prize brought
her work to a wider audience.
But then this is not the first time an artist has run up against the
advertising industry. It took the abstract artist, Bridget Riley, a
whole year’s legal wrangling in 1994 to gain redress from Ogilvy &
Mather. The agency had apparently based an ad for Sun Pat peanut butter
on one of her more celebrated paintings. In the end the artist accepted
a pounds 10,000 donation to a charity in recompense for this
’Advertising is a world of magpies and we steal the sparkling things we
see,’ admits Beattie. ’Having said that, I think we can be a bit
naughty. We go to a club and steal a trend and go on to appropriate
whole chunks of youth culture. What people don’t realise is that the
advertising world never sets trends - it only follows them. It’s only
because we have the power of the media behind us that it looks as though
we started them. It happens all the time, especially in typography or in
the ads that we borrow from TV and film.’
For BMP, the fact that most other agencies are looking in similar places
for inspiration is scant consolation. Its chairman, James Best, settled
on the convenient shorthand, ’ideas come from everywhere’, in defence of
BMP’s actions as the agency prepared to formulate its first official
response in the Wearing case.
Certainly, the legal position as it stands encourages the full and frank
sharing of artistic ideas. ’Ideas, of course, cannot be copyrighted and
nor can titles or, in most cases, slogans,’ points out the advertising
legal consultant, Philip Circus. ’Send-ups or pastiches are usually fine
as long as it’s made apparent what is being parodied. In fact, ads
always used to have the line, ’with apologies to ...’ at the beginning,
which made it quite clear what the source material was. Where you can
get in trouble is in music - I’ve lost count of the number of times a
sort of version of the Star Wars music has appeared in ads or you are
accused of passing off an artist’s work.’
But whatever the legal position, critics believe agencies would be
better advised to collaborate with the artistic community rather than
just borrow from it.
’Of course, you’re going to get a better ad if you work with the people
who have originated the idea,’ points out the Idler’s editor, Tom
’We already work with far-sighted ad agencies like Mother, for instance,
but what really upsets us about the Strongbow ad is that it’s so poorly
done - the old school tie joke is just painfully dated. Whatever else,
we could have helped them come up with a much better ad. Unfortunately,
it seems some ad agencies are full of creative directors who are not
that creative. People who wish they could have been artists or writers
but wanted a nice-paying job instead.’
Editor’s comment, p55.