“Hmmm…I feel like I’ve seen this ad before”

If you come across a lot of creative, over time certain things you see or hear will trigger a sense of déja vu. Like in those memory-games you played as a kid where you’d try to find matching pairs, something pops in your memory that says “hold on a second…I’ve seen this before!”

Now, this notion is nothing new in advertising or in any art form, because inspiration and ideas always come from somewhere.

But it’s also obvious to a careful observer that not all of these “déja vus” can be classified into one single bucket: they range from crazy coincidences, to straight-up creative plagiarism. If we don’t make this distinction, it’s impossible to have a constructive conversation about what is right and what is wrong. Because believe me, there are grey areas like you wouldn’t believe!

Since this can get fairly subjective, let’s enlist the help of the infallible, scientific, quantum-powered, Commonsense-o-meter to help us classify some examples into buckets that make a little more sense. This brilliant machine has come up with 5 buckets:

1. Elements in common – These aren’t really close to each other on the whole, but they share a common element which triggers a pairing in your mind. The similarity is anecdotal, but it points out how often certain variables are used (and re-used) in advertising.

Commonsense-o-meter™ says: I tell you, some things keep popping up over and over. Fine with us as long as they work – but it’s not bad if anyone pushes to be original every now and then, ok?

The examples below both feature: hair braids. The first is from Argentina for H2O! soft drinks, and the second is from China, featuring the usual surrealism for Skittles.

2. Cosmic coincidence – These seem like clear ripoffs at first, but for one reason or another chances are reasonably good that there was no connection between the two. You’re left shaking your head at the craziness of the universe!

Commonsense-o-metersays: Wow. What an amazing coincidence! Just…wow.

Let’s start with two car commercials…one for VW from Tribal DDB Berlin, the other for Peugeot from Euro RSCG Paris. Both aired at the same time (this is what makes me want to believe in a cosmic coincidence)

And how about these: both are about Detroit, both feature a poem “See it Through” by Detroit Poet Edgar Albert Guest, both feature gritty urban images of the city, and they were both uploaded on the very same day. One is for Chrysler. The other is a video done for Boat Magazine. If it sounds too amazing to believe, you can read more about it here and here.

3. Homage – Here is where the imitation is by design. The idea is purposefully reminiscent of past work.

Commonsense-o-metersays: Interesting that they chose to go down this road once again, I can see what they were trying to do. It works for me (or doesn’t). Very cool. Carry on.

This German viral film for Dirt Devil was a hit a couple of months ago, right in time for Halloween. I don’t need to tell you that it was a lift from the movie “The Exorcist”, but below is the original trailer, in case you’ve forgotten. But in addition, you’ll see that they most likely built upon an idea first done by BBH in 1997 (Aspirateur 1997). Call it a double-homage!

4. Copycat – This is when you’re borrowing an idea and perhaps secretly hoping people won’t notice. Enough elements are the same so that it’s clearly not a coincidence, yet small tweaks are made to maintain plausible deniability.

Commonsense-o-metersays: Nope. I know you changed the end, but it still feels like copy. You know it, we know it, your momma knows it. Why don’t we all just admit it, and move on.

Now click here, to watch a TVC for Chinese underwear brand Lightness, featuring famous star Li Bingbing. You’ll be amazed

And here is an example of a Nescafe (coffee) ad from Mexico that you’ll recognize as a previous “Ad of the Day”, and a Carte Noire (also coffee!) ad from France. They both aired two months apart. Ummm, yeah. A little too close for comfort.

And finally, here’s a 2010 example from McDonald’s by Heye & Partners Munich, and the follow-up in 2011 for Red Robin, by Periscope Advertising in Minneapolis. Hmmm…

5. Rip-off – Flagrant copying so exaggerated and obvious that it baffles the mind a bit. I mean, come on, it’s exactly the same! Did you think nobody was going to notice? In today’s digital world? Couldn’t you have made it a little less obvious? Come on..!

Commonsense-o-metersays: Some explanations are in order, my friend. It’s not that I don’t believe you, but…I don’t believe you. Seriously, what were you thinking? Did you think we wouldn’t find out?

Let’s warm up with two mobile phone network ads, both touting the provider’s fantastic coverage. The first is for AT&T, from 2010 by BBDO NY. The second is for MTC in Ukraine, done a year later by JWT. Seriously? Come on, guys!

And here is a great example of an idea done not once, not twice, but three times, by different agencies and for three different car brands! (I know Nissan and Renault are under the same umbrella company, but still…)

The first is from 2009, done on spec for Mitsubishi by a production house in Germany.

And then, two years later, we get these two ads airing at the same time. The Renault ad is by Publicis and the Nissan ad by TBWA\Chiat Day. Really, guys? Come on! (you can read more about this case here)

Oh boy. Before I get too depressed, let’s start wrapping this up. What are we to make of this? A couple of thoughts:

  1. As I said before, this is nothing new. Check out some of the links at the bottom if you’re interested in seeing just how widespread this is in all art forms.
  2. To be creative, you need to absorb the world around you. And it’s inevitable that those impressions are later poured back out as an idea, an executional element, or a design choice.
  3. Also, creatives move around from agency to agency, ideas that get rejected at one place can get resurrected at another, etc. There may well be reasonable explanations for many of these.
  4. But in today’s interconnected and digital world, we need to be more proper than ever about attribution. You can’t expect to “borrow” an idea you saw while vacationing in the Philippines and not get caught.
  5. Let’s remember that not every similarity is created equal:
    • If you hit “cosmic coincidence”, “subtle influence” or “homage” in the Commonsense-o-meter, my default position is that there’s no harm done. Enough people are working on enough similar briefs around the world these days that it’s not unlikely for there to be a crazy coincidence.
    • Once you hit “copycat” or “rip-off” in the Commonsense-o-meteryou become guilty in my eyes until proven innocent by means of a convincing explanation. Explain to me why this is not a rip-off, I want to believe. “Honey? Sit down, we need to have a talk…” (oh shit!)

What do you think, dear reader? Does it shatter your faith in humanity to see great “original” ideas that were actually first done years before? Or is it an inevitable part of the creative process? Where are your boundaries between imitation and plagiarism?

Thanks for reading.


Speaking of attribution, I took many of these examples (including the rabbit header image) from a great web site that has tons of these look-alikes for you to look through and gasp/laugh. http://www.joelapompe.net/

The “J’Adore” copycat example was from a fabulous site about Chinese advertising called “Little Red Book“.

Additional links:

  1. If you’re interested in this topic, you should watch a great series of videos called “Everything is a Remix” that trace the amazing similarities/outright copying in everything from music, to movies, to fashion. Here is the link to part 1 (con subtitulos en Español!) http://youtu.be/nxrjsHSbHkY
  2. On the right hand column you will find parts 2, 3 and 4. And be sure to also view the ones focusing exclusively on The Matrix and Kill Bill.

3 thoughts on ““Hmmm…I feel like I’ve seen this ad before”

    • Thanks Tom, glad you you enjoyed it – and thank you for posting. I also love this ad (it was an early “Ad of the Day”, back on Aug 23). And the Cannes jury clearly was in agreement, as this ad from BBDO Argentina won a Gold Lion at Cannes 2011 in the film category. Not too shabby, eh?

  1. Pingback: Spot e Adv: citazione, omaggio o plagio?

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