Giles Keeble: copying for ads is plagiarism – why not steal?

John Lewis Partnership advertising this Christmas is in the land of make-believe (and why not?), with the ad for John Lewis featuring an imaginary monster and for Waitrose with a pub in the middle of nowhere filled with people, including a young girl, who seemed to have got there without walking through the snow, which surely hasn’t fallen that much since they’ve been inside. Fortunately, the pub has a gas oven. It’s the willing suspension of disbelief – but for the John Lewis ad itself, how much belief is suspended to accept the inspiration wasn’t children’s book Mr Underbed? (below) Does it matter? Since the author has benefitted from a reprint, he’d probably say no and thanks. But it has caused a bit of a stir, as if advertising hasn’t been doing this before. Picasso apparently said ‘all art is theft,’ and someone else said something along the lines that poor artists copy, great artists steal.

The author of Mr Underbed made the point that if a work is appropriated, the original creator should be credited. That happened eventually with Gregor Fisher, whose photo booth comedy sketch was replicated in an exact but shorter form for Hamlet (below), and it seemed that after a letter appeared in Campaign he was at least invited to the awards dinner. There are other (what might at best be called) ‘homages.’ GGT’s Holsten campaign with Griff Rhys Jones was a copy of Carl Reiner’s film ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.’ Agencies all over town were trying to think of a way of using the short film ‘Der Lauf Der Dinge’ before Honda eventually managed with ‘Cog’- a good example of doing something good and different with the original.

At about the same time (the early 80s I think) there was another ‘art’ film called ‘Tango’ which was eventually copied by GGT for Ariston. Ken Hoggins and I did an ad for BMW called ‘Dead Cars’ (below) which got marked down apparently because we had ‘copied’ Cadillac Ranch. I remember writing to Campaign to say, of course that’s where the idea came from. Where do creative people get inspiration and ideas from? Art galleries, films, observation, chance collisions. It must be increasingly hard for advertising creative teams to do something that hasn’t been done before, and because advertising is a commercial art, the risk is that the commercial bit gets lost.

I remember a terrific ad for Guide Dogs that Mike Shafron did which did nothing for the charity, and the great campaign Leagas Delaney did for Linguaphone allegedly didn’t do much for the business, but of course that might not have been the fault of the ads. Fortunately, there are many examples of a correlation between great (award-winning) work and effectiveness. I have no idea whether the proportion of distinctive and maybe even original work has decreased, but doing great work is the point of good agencies, and some clients still recognise that.


The other criticism I’ve noticed about the Xmas ads is about some of the people in them. I’ve written about this before, as the more ‘slice of life’ ads we see (and we are seeing more of them, perhaps because stronger ideas are lacking) the more important the writing and the casting. The Waitrose ad seems well cast, nicely shot with nice music. The John Lewis ad has been criticised for the ‘compulsory’ mixed race marriage and Tesco has been slammed for showing Muslims in its attempt at its inclusive good will to all men (and women) TVC. I think those people who have complained, and the few who say they will boycott Tesco, should be forced to eat turkey, reheated sprouts and Xmas pudding with no sixpences in it until well after the New Year. And what if some of the unhijab-ed in the ads are Jewish, or Greek Orthodox, or Mormons, or (God forbid) atheists?


Of course, another issue in the news is sexual harassment. If Jerry Della Femina’s stories around Mad Men are to be believed (let alone any examples we might have been aware of over the years), advertising must have had or still has its share of incidents. It’s a business full of intelligent, attractive and driven people. I don’t suppose anything will emerge from the past and to what end? But it must be a possibility that present day assaults of various degrees of seriousness may emerge and will need addressing. Or maybe not…

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