Advertising Redux

Imitation as the sincerest form of flattery? Not all the time...

If you develop a big creative idea, how do you prove it’s unique? And in the digital age, where everyone’s a designer, director and star, how can you control, protect and own it? 

The fact is, you can execute a great idea and it can get stolen. Or, you can revisit it again to determine if it’s great, how it has the potential to hold up decades later. 


Apple “1984” was the then-tiny computer company’s commercial that ran on the Super Bowl and is often identified as the finest example of advertising of all time.  

Its history is rich: Ridley Scott directed a mini black and white movie that uses the basis of George Orwell’s novel, “1984”, and IBM not explicitly identified as “Big Brother.” A young woman in color (representing Macintosh) enters an enormous hall where the drones are listening to Big Brother’s message on screen, only she shatters the image with a sledge hammer. 

Apple’s Board of Directors hated it and wanted the marketing department and ad agency to get the media money back for three TV spots committed to the network. They were able to recoup two of the three spots and Apple had to run the commercial once.  Their goal was to get Wall Street to notice this fledging company. Never again would the Super Bowl be just a game – after seeing this commercial, it was now a destination to introduce big, blockbuster advertisements to an eager public.

Twenty-four years later, without Apple’s permission, the commercial is updated by an "independent citizen" with the use of digital software and is titled, "Vote Different". The online spot is “corrected” with Hillary Clinton on the screen and the young woman wears an Obama logo “in the fight” for the Democratic nomination.  

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?  Maybe not, according to MacWorld. In fact, it was the copyright owners of Orwell's book (film and TV rights too) who protested the original ad and the Obama version.


Coca Cola, in full ownership of its original creative revised a spot their agency McCann Ericson developed over thirty years ago. The original commercial from 1979 used Pittsburgh Steelers' Mean Joe Greene in an execution as sweet as the soft drink.  Joe “shares a Coke and a smile” with a young fan and gives the youngster an authentic jersey. All's right in beverage land.

But in 2009, to address the irreverence of Coke Zero – a stealer of original taste with no calories – Coke returns to football with Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steeler as well. Only this time, with a message that starts out just like Mean Joe's, the Coke brand managers try to stop the copycat commercial and are thrown to the floor, rather than thrown a jersey.  

Funny, not just for funny's sake, but for a revised message that is as irreverant as the product. I often show this to my students because the message is that much clearer if you know where the original idea came from.

In the end, in my view, unless it's a chance to use a new form of media, most ideas are hardly new or controversial. What make them fresh and different are the twists and revamps that bring them up to the standards and sensitivities of 21st century consumers. What makes them controversial is when authors fail to own up to the owner of the original creative.

It might be called creative. Or parody. But for the creative artists and writers who initially worked their hearts out to develop it, they'll often call it copy infringment and plagiarism.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Levittown Man September 27, 2011 at 07:23 PM
I hope you don't honestly believe this: It might be called creative. Or parody. But for the creative artists and writers who initially worked their hearts out to develop it, they'll often call it copy infringment and plagiarism. You are comparing traditional advertising with the advent of new technology. Both have a place in this world. If some ads seem to be the exact duplicate of a previous ad then that is the creative director/ad agency's fault. Maybe if these agencies would worry more about results for their clients over their shop's rep maybe some creativity would spawn form that.
Lauren B. Lev September 28, 2011 at 04:55 PM
I agree that there is a comparison here of traditional ads with digital technology. Once they collide you are dealing with propriatary ownership issues as identified in the Apple example -- ownership issues that have to be protected in some way. As for duplicating ideas, creatives are often taught to generate ideas from looking at previous ad in the category or effective, award winning executions used in the past (One Show, Cannes). It's the starting point -- but I would hope creatives would respect what has come before -- not own it. The balance you describe here -- results for their clients vs. shop's reputation is the classic issue. "It's not creative unless it sells." vs. advertising as an information/investment not the driver of sales alone. That is, if the product, price or distribution of the product is faulty, no creative advertising can't drive better results. I believe when work originates from respecting the customer and writing to his/her needs in a way that is appreciated and understood that is the root of creative success.


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