At the same time, the question that the great minds -- from Plato to Mark Twain to Monty Python -- have pondered is whether there are any “completely different” or original ideas under the sun. Or does most new work necessarily come down to a pastiche of past ideas put together in a more nuanced, less blatant way?
The recycling issue has long been a problem in advertising, where, unlike books and movies, the credits don’t come attached.
It’s a collaborative biz, anyway. Along the way, many creatives have felt free to claim certain ads in their portfolios because they happened to, say, walk by the office that it was being edited in -- often to the astonishment of the actual makers.
Nowadays it’s far worse, as there is an infinite demand for faster, cheaper, mass quantities of ads, served up by young art and copy slaves while still being pressured to present award-winning ideas.
Anyway, so that I am not accused of theft, I am acknowledging that the idea for this column started with the provocative Facebook post of my friend Ernie Schenck. Now a freelance ad consultant, he’s the former executive creative director of Hill, Holliday in Boston.
“Did you happen to catch this Kaiser Permanente spot on the Olympics last night?” he asked, for starters.
Some background: Clearly, the global stage and boundless media opportunities surrounding the Games offer a sort of Olympics for advertisers as well. The sheer excellence, talent, will, and discipline of the athletes on exhibit invokes some brands to elevate their games accordingly.
Many of the messages are emotional and uplifting, imagining a better future for the earth and all of its humans.
It’s the whole Coke, fresh-faced-teens-in-native-costumes-teaching-the-world-to-sing thing, circa 2016.
The Kaiser Permanente spot Schenck mentioned is part of the hospital group’s long-running “Thrive” campaign from Campbell Ewald.
It fits into that uplift genre, although it shines a light on the sadder, darker subject of children’s diseases.
In a no-holds-barred, straightforward approach, the spot gets directly to the statistical chances of kids from very different communities and gene pools developing heart failure, diabetes, breast cancer, obesity, etc. in their lifetimes.
The upsetting disease stats, like, “If I develop breast cancer, it’s 39% more likely to kill me,” are read by girls and boys in voiceovers. We see a diverse group of kids, shot individually on playgrounds, park trails, beaches, at home and in school, who face the camera directly. After the litany of disease, the ending becomes more upbeat, with one child saying, “these diseases can be managed or prevented when caught early on.”
But let’s get back to Ernie’s point. After catching the spot on TV, he wrote: “WTF? Who in their right mind thought they could hijack one of the all-time great Nike spots ever created and think no one would notice?”
He refers to “If You Let Me Play,” the legendary Wieden + Kennedy Nike spot for girls and women that was so groundbreaking that it transcended advertising and entered into the greater cultural and political arena.
Released during the 1996 Summer Olympics, the message -- the need for girls to play team sports, for their health and self-esteem -- is as relevant and critical today as it was 20 years ago when it broke. Title 9 is still in danger, and schools are dropping team sports for lack of funding.
Perhaps it’s the Grandmammy of the trend that’s recently come to be called “femvertising,” but with a heart and intelligence, and without the annoying pandering. Form and function match.
It featured an unflinching “out of the mouths of unapologetic, outspoken babes” message, with unprettified, documentary-like shots of the kids, both static and in action. The staccato cuts, and jagged, unexpected repetition of the poetic line, “If you let me play sports” transformed the spot into art.
These girls speak of intimate things -- issues that were never discussed in public, nor even recognized at the time. One girl says, “I will be 60% less likely to get breast cancer,” while another talks about being more likely to leave an abusive husband.
But with every word and cut, the people of the Swoosh forced the whole family of humanity to think beyond fitness or sneakers, to the issue of allowing girls’ equal rights on the playing field. I think it’s right up there with “1984” as one of the top five commercials ever made.
Or as Ernie Schenck said, “It’s like stealing the Declaration of Independence.”
Perhaps the K-P creative team at Campbell Ewald thought it wouldn’t matter, since it was a different category, and the execution is slightly different, in that we hear kids’ voiceovers, and don’t see them speaking directly.
For her part, the writer of the Nike spot, Janet Champ, responded that “this spot has been ripped off so many times in the last 15 years it's head-spinning. But to be so blatant? And to run it on the Olympics? “ (Both have stats on girls and breast cancer, for example.)
Champ added, “The reason I'm upset by the 'echo' playing right now in the Kaiser ad is larger than the fact it tries to duplicate IYLMP. The bigger picture is about what is passing for creativity now….Is it ethical, permissible, to use what somebody else has created as fodder? …It's discouraging. It's saddening. It's maddening. But more than that...I think it lessens our business to take the easy way out.”
What do you think, readers? Too close for comfort? Or this just what happens these days?
I think the grownups in the room should have killed it early on, allowing a thousand different little idea-lets to flourish, and through excellence and discipline and hard work, coaching one to make the big time.