Monday, March 22, 2010

Too close for comfort?

As anyone in the business can tell you, advertising is pretty conservative in nature. Sure, we wear jeans to work and have the vintage action figures arranged on our desks in obscene tableaux, but we're not in the business of exposing our clients to great risks. For that reason, advertising seldom leads popular culture, but rather reflects it. Because, like Hollywood (which is also now driven by investors and focus groups) the ad industry usually wants ideas that it knows will work.

This pressure to deal in known quantities doesn't just lead to advertising cliches. As agencies mine our increasingly recycled pop culture for cool memes, it can also lead to some rather troubling infringements of creative rights.

Just last night, I caught a Microsoft ad on TV that looked a lot like a commoncraft video, with simple paper cutouts manipulated by on-screen hands, deadpan voiceover delivery, and all.

I can't for the life of me find this ad online, but here's what I can only assume was the "inspiration":

We worked with commoncraft to do a social PSA for one of our government clients last year, so it's possible Lee was involved in this. But I doubt it.

You see, copycatting in advertising happens all the time. Just last week, Cundari Group in Toronto were accused of ripping off U.S. pop artist Thomas Allen in an ad for a Vancouver bookstore. The evidence below comes via Agency Spy:

The artist was so mad at what he calls the "theft" of his trademark cutout style, he decided to put the case forward to the court of social media, starting with his blog:

"I contacted a friend who is a well-known and highly respected figure in the world of design. Since this wasn’t a real campaign, he advised me not to waste any more time pursuing it. Instead (since Cundari’s chosen to walk on the wrong side of a very fine line), he suggested that I publicly shame them because 'they should know better'."

Another, perhaps less severe, form of copycatting I've noticed lately is HSBC's ad featuring the Chinese man fishing with trained birds:

Which, with the exception of the oddly out-of-place Canadian dude, is a pretty clean lift from the cormorant fisherman scene in BBC's Wild China.

So, what is inspiration and what is theft? In his correspondence with Thomas Allen, Cundari SVP CD Andy Manson retorted:
"Inspiration can come from anywhere. We were inspired by your technique just as you were inspired by the artists who painted the original pulp novel covers. So nobody is stealing anything from anybody. Think of all the executions that Andy Warhol’s lithograph technique has inspired. Or that celebrates Shepard Fairey’s style. Or Peter Beard’s. Or Barbara Kruger’s. Or Robert Indiana’s. The list goes on and on. Advertising routinely reflects the society around it and, as a result, what is popular.
Nobody was trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes."

What do you think?

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