Opinion: Perspective - Rip-off claims shouldn't trouble the ad business

Barely a week goes by in the Campaign office without a letter from some obscure (often overseas or long-toothed) source claiming that their work has been ripped off in a new campaign.

Nicking ideas from other ads is both artlessly lazy and utterly predictable. And sad, since neither the so-called original, nor the so-called copy are ever outstandingly good. Advertising that eats itself is simply perpet-uating the mediocrity that characterises so much of the business.

Still, sometimes these letters make amusing Diary stories. Take the recent claim by a property renovation company that Beattie McGuinness Bungay copied their "not for sale" idea and reworked it for Ikea. Or the contention that Wieden & Kennedy's Guardian ads were stolen by a Greek agency. The usual response to copycat claims is "maybe, but so what?".

Advertising is an industry of trends. Every other television ad earlier this year seemed to have (multi-coloured) objects falling from the sky: watch pieces for Vodafone, petals for Surf, sycamore leaves for Powergen, glass for Lloyds TSB ... And art directors can't get enough of swirly lines, usually decorated with flowers and butterflies.

That's the funny thing about the rip-off "row" bubbling over Sony Bravia's "Play-Doh" TV commercial (see, erm, this week's Diary, page 47). If there were another couple of ads in quick succession with either a) hopping rabbits or b) plasticine animals, all Fallon would probably stand accused of is being part of a trend.

As it is, the agency is being criticised for taking inspiration from the Los Angeles freelance artists Kozyndan and their illustrations of multi-coloured bunnies bunnying round New York.

Of course, if Fallon's ad was a piece of crap, no-one would mind. It's not, and they do. So is "Play-Doh" a shameless, lazy rip-off, or a brilliant piece of advertising? Or both? And does it matter that the idea's possibly not original?

If there was any firm evidence that the ad's creator, Juan Cabral, had studied the Kozyndan work before making the commericial, then I'd be inclined to say it was a rip-off, but not a shameless one: a rip-off that took an idea, translated it into a new medium, made it live in a completely fresh way through the employment of superb craftsmanship and commercial nous.

Whether he saw the work or not, the end result is an original ad that is surely one of the best in the UK this year. Strip out any moral concerns and it does not matter a jot that the commercial might have taken its cue from somewhere else.

Plenty of people will argue that you cannot strip the moral issue out of such arguments, that an artist's work has been stolen for someone else's personal gain.

Adland has been here before, of course: Mehdi Norowzian and Arks/Guinness and Gillian Wearing and BMP/Volkswagen were two high-profile cases in the late 90s. More recently, Honda's "cog" ran up against the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss who claimed their work had been copied. It's a dead-end argument; originality can be a disconcertingly elusive attribute.

But the point, really, is that advertising has always taken its cue from the world around it. Originality and creativity are about absorbing what already exists and giving it a new spin for commercial ends. To pretend that advertising should not take references from what its practitioners see around them is as naive as it is unworkable.

Crucially, how many people watching "Play-Doh" from their sofas will have seen the Kozyndan work, and how many would think less of Sony even if they had? The truth is that the rest of the world doesn't give a stuff where the idea came from and it's the rest of the world that Sony's selling to.

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