The day starts normally and then: Disaster looms everywhere. Wild animals run loose. Cars crash. Spontaneous fires appear. First responders are out in force. Fish fall from the sky.
The day starts normally and then: Disaster looms everywhere. Wild animals run loose. Cars crash. Spontaneous fires appear. First responders are out in force. No falling fish.
The first spot is Mophie’s new Powerless commercial, due to air on the Super Bowl tomorrow. It’s getting lots of pre-game buzz and deservedly so. What’s not to love? It delivers huge production value, great music, tight editing, individual scenes that are in and of themselves memorable – a rooster, goat, donkey pyramid – and a funny ending. It’s what happens when God’s phone runs out of juice.
The second commercial is Nike’s Morning After, shot by Spike Jonze in 1999. Only in this case the catalyst behind the disaster is the imminent arrival of Y2K. Hey, there’s nothing you can do about it, so why not go jogging? Even if giraffes are running around in the streets.
Deutsch LA, which created Mophie’s spot, is a very good creative shop. Typically, good creative shops strive not to regurgitate ideas that have been done. They pride themselves on being original. But as we all know, there’s no such thing as an original idea. Every idea is a build, a riff, or a segue off of something that’s already been done. Or it’s a combination of re-purposed ingredients. Sometimes creatives are aware of it, other times they’re not.
The questions creators should always ask include:
What can you steal?
How close is too close?
How long can you wait before appropriating an existing idea?
Is there a difference between style and story?
Looking at it from the latter, the two commercials are, in fact, different.
When your mobile goes down, your world goes to hell.
There’s nothing you can do about it, so jog on.
Mophie’s big, dramatic Super Bowl spot shares similarities with the 15-year old Nike commercial. But it tells a different story.
I’ve been in plenty of situations when a team came up with an idea that I knew had been done but they honestly didn’t. My memory went back farther than theirs.
We would struggle over what criteria to use in determining similarities. Were they sort of alike or really alike? Were we simply replicating an executional device, or the story itself?
Often I’d make a decision based on what I thought industry peers would think. Their respect mattered.
But maybe that’s the wrong criteria. Viewers won’t be as critical. In fact they may not even notice. Plus if it’s a concept they liked the first time, maybe they’ll like it even more the second time.
Today my interest in this intellectual exercise is as a teacher. In academia, the single greatest crime is plagiarism. Work has to be entirely one’s own, or be properly attributed. Taking credit for someone else’s ideas or content brings harsh penalties.
When students see examples like the above in the marketplace – an ad that looks somewhat close to something already done – and ask whether it’s OK, I tell them it’s not OK in the classroom or in their homework submissions.
But in the “real world,” across all media – music, television, advertising — the lines are often blurry.
Sometimes “accidents” occur. Witness the recent Sam Smith/Tom Petty settlement. Smith’s Stay With Me is arguably a copy of Petty’s Don’t Back Down. Was it intentional? Both Tom and Sam say no. By settling so quickly, Sam Smith admits that he unconsciously took the tune or phrase from the original. Meanwhile others argue that there are only so many rock ‘n roll building blocks and that it’s virtually impossible not to copy the predictable simplicity of Petty. Go figure.
In some cases, creators find ways to justify intentional decisions. This is especially true in TV land. Every time there’s a successful show the plot line gets pilfered. It doesn’t take much to see that State of Affairs is a heist of Homeland. Allegiance has to deny ripping off The Americans.
However, copping a musical riff or phrase seems likely to be an innocent accident. Melodies stick in our heads even if we forget where they came from. And TV creators can fall back on claims that their storylines and characters are different from the original show being appropriated.
So where does that bring us when it comes to advertising? Well in this case, one could easily argue that apocalyptic ideas are universal and public domain. They’ve been done. And they’ll continue to be done. The creative responsibility is to do them better than previous executions and add something to the “genre.”
On Facebook, Tom Monahan, a former agency founder and award winning creative director who’s judged many an award show, made exactly that argument.
I abhor derivative ideas. But in this case any similarity will be lost on 98% of the audience. The Nike spot itself was a parody of a concept as old as the oldest books written and the dozens (hundreds?) of cheesy films continuously pushing the technologies of their day to play off a concept that is so overplayed now that it qualifies as a bit that is public domain.
Doug Gould an adjunct professor at BU and the creative director behind more than one memorable Super Bowl spot had another take.
There’s nothing new under the sun. And none of us can be responsible for knowing all that’s out there, or has been there. If it’s original to the author’s brains, it’s as good as you can get.
Others, however, weren’t quite so sure. Some argued it was too close for comfort. A couple suggested that the Nike spot is still better.
I asked Pete Favat, Deutsch’s CCO for his take. Being an insanely rabid Patriots fan, Pete did not want to get into a long discussion – he was in Super Bowl mode. But he did offer this.
“Apocalypse is pretty PD (public domain). The Nike spot and the Mophie spot are two totally different stories using a similar backdrop.”
And he’s right. They may use a familiar backdrop. But they are, in fact, different stories.
Deutsch and Pete obviously knew of the Nike spot. And both agency and CCO have reputations for high standards when it comes to creative. They simply made a conscious decision that the God concept, not the apocalypse setting, was what mattered.
No doubt there will still be some debate. At least among the insiders. But it’s all just a reminder that until there’s such a thing as an original idea, we have to get all our ideas from somewhere, don’t we?
Other examples of ideas that are close to each other:
This land is, apparently, every brand’s land.
Jeep’s Super Bowl Commercial Beautiful Lands
North Face’s Your Land
Playing hockey and tennis in the street.
Molson’s Street Hockey
Nike’s NYC Street Tennis
Celebrating the most challenging job in the world.
American Greetings’ World’s Toughest Job
Mama Positiva’s The Most Difficult Job
Got any more?