CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - SPOOF ADS. Is a spoof a clever homage or just a lazy rip-off?

Spoof ads aren't always a joke. There can be pitfalls too, Rachel Gardner writes.

Adland was witness to a new example of spoof advertising this week with the release of Virgin Mobile's "Red Academy".

The viral offering, created by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, is a tongue-in-check imitation of Mother's high-profile Orange "learn" campaign.

With it comes evidence that the spoofing craze, pioneered some 20 years ago with Carling Black Label's version of Levi Strauss' "launderette", has finally come full circle.

A new genre, the parody of the parody has been born.

There have been numerous great examples of copycat ads over the years, but is Virgin's a spoof too far or a well-judged attempt to cut a swathe through a crowded market?

A well-executed spoof can tattoo a brand on to consumers' overloaded memory banks more quickly than the best-produced original ad could hope to because it has in-built recognition.

That was certainly the case with Scottish Courage's relaunch of Newcastle Brown Ale, which used a burly drinker lounging on velvet in a mimic of Yves Saint Laurent's controversial poster of the model Sophie Dahl for Opium.

Then last summer, the Lilt brand's laughing ladies ran through an entire apartment block, ambushing people going about their daily lives in a gentle piss-take of the beautifully crafted and extremely expensive "odyssey" spot from Levi's.

But the genre has pitfalls. In the case of Virgin Mobile, what punch can its ad pack if it is ridiculing a campaign that is already tongue-in-cheek? Virgin risks looking like it doesn't understand the irony in the Orange advertising.

More importantly, because Virgin and Orange operate in the same highly competitive arena, "Red Academy" risks promoting Orange as much as it is itself.

The Mother partner Stef Calcraft is well placed to comment as his agency was responsible for the well-received Lilt spoof, and, as the creator of Orange's "learn", is now experiencing life on the receiving end of the copycat phenomenon. He says: "Great spoofs very rarely work in the same market, because it just looks like one brand is having a dig at another."

Calcraft is well aware of the spoof genre's limitations. "Spoofs are simply brand entertainment," he says. "They need to be really rib-crackingly funny to work. You can't use spoofs to make a competitive point against the brand that you're actually spoofing in the first place."

However, he adds that he's flattered that someone has taken inspiration from what Mother has done, saying that it shows the campaign has a cultural relevance.

Dylan Williams, the executive planning director at Grey London, believes that almost all advertising takes its lead from another art form, but that this is a weakness. He says: "Advertising is at its best when it creates rather than follows popular culture, when it shows people something they won't have seen before.

"Budweiser's 'whassup?' was just completely fresh, as was Levi's Flat Eric and those ads tend to be the most effective. But in truth, most ads don't create their own reference points."

Jane Cunningham, Ogilvy & Mather's head of planning, believes spoof advertising has limited value. She says: "I would never start with a spoof to build a brand campaign. A spoof is a bit of a luxury and a bit of fun but it is not a brand campaign to spoof someone else's work.

"However, I think it can add something if there is an obvious spat going on between two advertisers that the consumer would be aware of. Then a spoof can enable an advertiser to take advantage of that."

Virgin Mobile's latest effort would seem to partly meet Cunningham's criteria. Mobile telephony is a very competitive market so there is some logic in poking fun at one of your biggest rivals.

Richard Duff-Tytler, the brand communications executive at Virgin Mobile, explains that this was the motivation behind "Red Academy".

"A lot of networks are producing campaigns that focus on the technology rather than the consumers and I think Orange lost its way with its Orange 'learn' approach," he explains.

"I think 'Red Academy' underlines our brand values while reminding customers that they don't need to be spoken down to. Nor do they require trainers to teach them every working function of their mobile phone."

In "Red Academy", a childlike Machiavellian character called Damian indoctrinates naive trainees in his own, angry, unconventional style of teaching. The underlying message behind his training is that people should forget about phone functions and simply call their friends.

In short, he is the antithesis of everything Orange's Dylan stands for.

And it is a far cry from Virgin's somewhat darker TV campaign, "The Devil makes work for idle thumbs".

Duff-Tytler adds: "I think spoof advertising can work if it is done in the right way. You need to ensure that the original ad is funny and that people will get the joke."

But spoofers should beware - parodying another agency's campaign is not without its legal pitfalls too. Giles Crown, a partner in the media brands and technology group at Lewis Silkin, explains how the issue of copyright can be called into play where copycat ads are concerned, although this is an area where infringement is notoriously difficult to prove.

The test is whether the ad is "substantially" similar to the original in look and feel and storyline. However, there is no copyright in ideas alone.

"Legally there is a copyright argument if the ads are extremely similar," he says. However, he adds: "But it does not look particularly good to take legal action as it then looks like the advertiser has lost their sense of humour."

Disgruntled advertisers can also state their case to the Advertising Standards Authority. Clause 21 in its guidelines states no marketing communication should so closely copy another that it is likely to mislead or cause confusion.

WCRS can testify on the trials and tribulations of spoofing. Its 118 118 take on Wieden & Kennedy's Honda "cog" ad never made it on air after the car manufacturer blocked its release.

Likewise, a Heineken ad showing a group of men laughing at a "whassup?" spoof - and then ordering Heineken - never saw the light of network TV.

But this in itself generated publicity for the brands involved, which can never be a bad thing. In fact, much of the value of spoof advertising is the widespread editorial copy it can generate.

Ultimately, the argument of whether a spoof works rests on the consumer's continued liking of witty ads that deliver a tongue-in-cheek message.

On that basis, it seems likely the parody is here to stay.