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R.I.P. originality

Ripoff advertising isn’t new. But until recently, reputable ad agencies tried to avoid it. When it happened, it was typically because a creative tried to sneak something by and others didn’t catch it.

Frankly, it can be hard to define what is a ripoff and what isn’t. We’re all influenced by what others are doing. We see ideas and these influence our own perception and the surrounding culture. So in one sense most ads do rip off elements of other ads, whether intentional or not. And some creative comes out being similar to what others are doing or have done. That’s not what I’m referring to. By ripoff, I mean ads that are very obviously not original, but blatantly steal a concept or style from another, a shortcut to coming up with an original idea.

So far this year, we’ve seen not one, but two major rip-off television commercials by large brands that should know better and have the resources to avoid this kind of stupidity. What were they thinking? In one case, it’s possible the decision makers didn’t know it was a ripoff. In the other, it was so obvious that the creatives could not have been the only culprits.

Windows Phone 7 loses Spice

Isaiah Mustafa has very quickly built a reputation as the “Old Spice Guy.” The original “Look at me, now look at your man” commercial by Wieden+Kennedy that made him famous was delightful, a refreshing change from the usual approach to male deodorants. As the ad series went on, we grew familiar with the concept and it became less interesting, yet people still enjoyed them — especially the original ad that started the whole thing. I’ve seen parodies of the commercial (including this delightful version and this fun version from Sesame Street), references on various TV shows, and even voice mail messages you can download. Here’s a look at the first ad:

Enter Microsoft down under in Australia. They hire the same guy to use his same distinctive Old Spice delivery approach to sell… tada! Software! Kinda. We don’t really know much about what he’s selling for two reasons.

  1. First, we’ve fallen asleep before the end of the spot because it’s so dull. Only Microsoft could take a great concept and make it this boring. It reminds me of the joke about the wife of a Microsoft engineer who tells her friend that life in the bedroom consists of him describing to her how great it’s gonna be.
  2. The other reason we don’t know is that the spot doesn’t really tell us. So what we’re left with is the Old Spice Guy, standing against the same familiar ocean background, talking us to death about a product we don’t really get to understand. Bad as the spot is, everyone can see it’s a blatant ripoff. There’s no way that essentially everyone involved in this didn’t have a clue about what they were doing. Judging by the response on the advertising blogs, I doubt it will endear Mr. Mustafa to future prospects. Here’s the Microsoft spot. Please don’t drive or operate machinery after viewing.

Pepsi goes SOUR

The other example of recent ripoff advertising comes from Pepsi. With the help of TBWA, they produced what looked, at first glance, like a really great spot about the world coming together. When I first saw it, I loved its creativity and stylistic treatment. People in different locations sharing objects through the magic of the video interface, becoming one common community in the process. Cool idea, good execution to “One Tribe” by the Black Eyed Peas. Here’s the Pepsi One World spot:

Not long after, I learned through the magic of the global community that this ad stole all its visual styling from a Japanese music video by SOUR, produced six months earlier, for their song “Hibi No Neiro.” Take a look at the original SOUR video Hibi No Neiro, then you decide for yourself what you think of Pepsi’s effort now.

It’s certainly possible that the agency and even the client may not have known about the ripoff. Maybe it was the producer of the spot who thought nobody would find out. So I don’t want to come down too hard on the company or agency. But seriously, with all the approvals and licenses that have to happen, I doubt nobody knew. I don’t know if Pepsi paid a licensing fee to SOUR for the use of that video style treatment. I’ll excuse you if you have to step outside and choke with laughter over that one, but call me an eternal optimist. Even if they did, it’s just wrong shy of using SOUR for the music itself. I can understand if some creative schmuck in a small agency, feeling under pressure with an impossibly small budget, might cross the line to steal that much of an idea from someone else. But in a major agency? For a major client? A global client, no less? That’s just ridiculous. Please, ad people, let’s stop going down this kind of road.

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George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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