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.
I agree wholeheartedly that ripping off past award-winning ads is despicable and lazy. But it occurred to me that perhaps - only conjecture - no one on the K-P/CE team was aware of the provenance of the concept. It was, as you point out, 20 years ago when Nike introduced IYLMP. I wonder how many on the K-P/CE team were under 10 at the time... or even 20. As for the "grownups in the room," perhaps they, too, had forgotten. I myself had a, "oh, yeah... THAT spot" moment as I was reading the column. My point is, far too few people in the field these days are true students of the craft of advertising. They don't venerate the Ogilvys and Bernbachs and Loises of the past lest they appear out of fashion. While technological advances have definitely changed advertising (some of them for the better), we should remember that, at its essence, it is storytelling and good stories never go out of fashion.
It may surprise you that mere viewers have no idea about or memory of what spots ran in 1996 and really don't care. The KP spot does a public service and the approach is hardly unique to advertising.
Want memorable ads? Put kids on a hill singing about sugary drinks. Or let a child pull petals from a daisy before the nuke goes off. Tell me why 1984 won't be 1984. Order up Mean Joe Green and a kid. Or have huge horses pull both a wagon and our heartstrings. Those are memorable spots.
Those who took composition 101 and 102 would know there are only 7 basic plots in writing (read:story telling).
And if one were to think about it, the same seven plots also apply to advertising storytelling.
And as far as the millennial's sense of history, many seem to under the impression that history beagan on the day they were born. As a bunch they don't read and don't care they don't read.
I'm sure that the creative folks who develop ads presume that theirs are the very first presentations of the ideas or concepts sold. I am no creative, but I rarely see truly innovative ads. When you strip away the insights, the creative is about perspective, be it cleverly comedic interpretation, brave candor, beauty front-and-center, or something else.
But to become morally indignant that child voiceovers of statistics as used 20 years ago is a rip-off is absurd. You really don't understand your audience if you think advertising constructs can be so distinct in perpetuity. Maybe those holy grails exist in the creative world, but rarely outside of it.
Perhaps the K-P people feel that since they are in the business of healing, and not, for instance, business of selling beer, they then are allowed to steal ideas that may result in better health. I disagree with this thinking.
You are so right.
Most of the world is responding viscerally. Only those of us who are focused on the business of advertising will gnash our teeth.
Advertising as a whole tends to borrow "equity" guite liberally from broader pop culture. And while i agree that at its highest form advertising can transcend from commercial art to something more pure - more original. I would suggest this idea that a format or concept can be protected would actually have a negative effect on the creative work in our industry. By its very nature it is not only advantageous but necessary for advertising to borrow from itself and the culture more broadly. These elements: music, talent, setting, format, editing, and the like serve as cues for the audience. And the result is ads can be more effective, and have resonance. The Olympics probably makes recognizing the original work worthwhile. But it does not necessarily take anything away from the K-P spot/ campaign nor does it diminish how viewers of the Olympics reacted to it.
Interesting that so many "viewers" see it from a different perspective that it's sort of in our advertising DNA, so it only makes the newer editions resonate more?