LIVE ISSUE/CREATIVE ORIGINALITY: Thin line between legitimate homage and rip-off - Ideas are borrowed all the time but it’s often wise to ask first

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.

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

none-too-affectionate homage.

’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.


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