World: Stuart Elliott in America

There's a saying that great minds think alike. There's also a saying that small minds run in the same gutter.

That split verdict on similarity of thought is useful when pondering the latest example of synchronicity, Madison Avenue-style: two big advertisers unveiling at the same time spots employing the same device, split screens.

The coinciding commercials are for Subway, the chain of sandwich shops, and Yahoo!, the web portal. The Subway ad, from Fallon Worldwide, started on 3 April and Yahoo!'s, from a WPP unit named Soho Square, broke five days later. The commercials bring to life the variety of offerings their respective brands promise by splitting the TV screen in half vertically.

For Subway, the left side of the screen shows menu fare such as salads being prepared, while on the right side customers describe the Subway meals they like the most. For Yahoo!, on each side of the screen a computer user tells how he or she uses Yahoo! for tasks such as shopping and sending e-mails, part of a push to reposition Yahoo! as a "life engine", not simply a search engine. As first one person talks, then the other, it becomes apparent the two testimonials are linked.

For instance, in one Yahoo! spot, the shared interest turns out to be politics. On the left side of the screen, Gray Davis, the former California governor, says he's using Yahoo! to find an agent because he might want to go into acting now that actors are becoming governors. On the right side, a girl describes sending e-mails to schoolmates to get elected as the eighth-grade class treasurer.

The debate about the originality of advertising ideas has taken on greater urgency, as the creators of "cog" and The Way Things Go will attest, because campaigns increasingly are reflecting the popular culture - the better to entertain consumers and keep them from changing the channel or turning the page. Just as it is a fine line between clever and stupid, to quote This is Spinal Tap, many in the industry perceive a fine line between inspiration and rip-off.

One method to help sort out who's zoomin' whom is to determine which ad came first, as evidenced by the title of a popular feature in the trade publication Adweek: "Deja Vu." For example, a Cadillac commercial from winter 2002 with a now-and-then theme involving cars from the past and present followed one from autumn 2001 for Porsche with a strikingly similar plot. Nike even sued in 2002 when a Leagas Delaney commercial for Sega Dreamcast showed a basketball player's slam-dunk shifting from regular speed to slow motion, just as a Nike spot did six years earlier (the case was settled out of court when Sega donated $100,000 to a charity).

It's murkier when both ads appear simultaneously, as happened with Yahoo! and Subway. "Split screen as a device isn't groundbreaking," Mark Goldstein, Fallon's chief marketing officer, acknowledged to The New York Times.

"But we haven't seen it in the fast-food business," he said, and it was "a good way" to "make sure the food got its due" as Subway switched to a more product-focused pitch.

It was John F Kennedy who once said: "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." Would that there were equally clear-cut methods to determine provenance in advertising.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).