Inspiration or outright theft? The meaning of originality in adland

In 1931 at New York’s Metropolitan Club, writer Theodore Dreiser twice slapped the face of Sinclair Lewis, then the only American to have won the Nobel Prize for literature, in return for being accused of plagiarism.

This is not an isolated incident. History is peppered with literary feuds, fuelled by outrage over borrowed words.

Advertising is no different, with digital slaps regularly being administered in the comments section of trade blogs. It’s become common on the pages of StopPress, Campaign Brief and Mumbrella to see a snide remark claiming that a piece of work has been lifted from another creative’s portfolio. 

‘Not original’ is to our industry what ‘fake’ is to YouTube content creators. A quickfire insult, sometimes used legitimately but other times serving only as a trolling mechanism.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve again seen such a debate play out in the comments section and the cheeks being burned this time belong to TVNZ Blacksand, which is facing criticism for its Survivor promo.

As pointed out by a number of commenters, there are significant similarities between the Survivor spot and the work previously done by Colenso for the launch of Frucor’s V Pure product.

The high-energy montage of colourful scenes across both spots could quite seamlessly be cut into a single spot advertising a hybrid V Energy Survivor drink served exclusively in Nicaragua.

But why stop there? While we’re at it, we could also splice in Guinness’ ‘Black’ campaign as well as Coco der Mer’s sexually charged ‘X’ spot (NSFW), which the team at Colenso cited as serving as inspiration for the V spot.

The point here is that the creators behind any of these spots could justifiably hop onto a comments section and throw around a few jabs on account of unsolicited borrowing of the concept.     

But who can actually claim ownership of the idea here?

FCB chief strategist David Thomason believes there’s no clear answer at face value.  

“It’s going to be difficult to prove ownership of a fast montage cut to intense music with various graphics flashing up on screen,” he says.

Originality is a complex word. Every creative, regardless of how esoteric or exclusionary their tastes might be, is influenced by what came before. The creativity that surrounds them influences their tastes and eventually determines what they create.

Thomason argues that while being influenced is a natural part of the creative process, what you do with that influence is a far more relevant to a discussion on originality. 

“When you absorb lots of fragments from many different sources and use them to create something that feels new, then that’s clever,” Thomason says.  

“When you unconsciously draw too much from one source that’s unfortunate, but it happens. When you study something in detail in order to replicate the entire effect, that’s theft.”

While examples of outright creative theft are rare, it has become far more likely for creatives to unconsciously trace along already drawn creative lines. 

DDB chief creative officer Damon Stapleton says that the amount of content we are fed online when combined with the demand for greater speed means that all creatives are at risk of repurposing work that has been done previously.

Stapleton says examples of agencies selling “creative ideas” which are little more than knock-offs have become increasingly common both here and abroad.

“This might be acceptable [to some marketers], but we need to decide if this is the type of industry we want to be,” he says. “It comes down to whether people think creativity creates value.”

The work of Peter Field strongly suggests creativity has a major impact on the effectiveness of advertising, but advertising provocateur Mark Ritson has also urged the industry not to be so hung up on originality.

Ritson advises adfolk to take a few tips from Hollywood and rework their greatest hits for the contemporary market. It advises marketers to look beyond big, bold innovative projects to smaller alternatives based on past success stories.

While this sentiment won’t sit well with many creatives, the thinking resonates with Barnes Catmur & Friends Dentsu managing partner Paul Catmur, who argues that advertising has become too fixated on originality.           

“No artistic community gets quite as upset about a perceived lack of originality as advertising people,” he says. “Movie remakes are fine, music sampling is accepted, artistic styles are replicated but advertising is supposed to be utterly original, even though it never is.”

To Catmur, the emphasis on originality has more to do with the self-aggrandising nature of the industry than what advertising is actually meant to achieve.

“It probably has something to do with our obsession with creative awards: if you’re looking for a ranking of creativity, originality is supposedly a good place to start. If you’re just trying to sell cars or change behaviour, it’s really not so important.”

This might be true, but it’ll do little to stop the Dresiers of adland from warming their palms against the cherubic cheeks of unsuspecting creatives, who may have reached a bit too far into the inspiration jar.

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