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When does ‘Taking Inspiration’ become ‘Taking Liberties’?

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Andrew Lloyd Webber

There’s a very amusing and thought-provoking video on YouTube that questions how closely related the original compositions of Andrew Lloyd-Webber are to other pre-existing original compositions.

The author very wisely steers a wide course around making a direct accusation, merely presenting what he considers to be the similarities and leaving viewers to make up their own minds.

I’ve seen it several times before and it always makes me laugh, but I watched it again over the weekend and it was while I was mulling over the questions raised that I saw an Allstate ad on TV, and noticed a striking similarity between the payoff gag at the end and a similar one in a Hanes commercial from 2010, though in the Allstate ad it’s less well executed. It’s the kind of similarity that, while perhaps less evident at script stage, becomes glaringly obvious in the final execution.

And there are, of course, many other examples. An ad for the ‘Mail on Sunday’ national newspaper in the UK comes to mind, bearing as it does a striking resemblance to one for Argentine brewer ‘Quilmes’ that debuted in late 2011. On the other hand, the term ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is one in common parlance and, being for different products, in different market sectors and indeed different hemispheres, perhaps it is unsurprising that the similarities only came to light as a result of a YouTube search for “Battle of the Sexes ad”.

Of all the other ‘coincidences’ available however, perhaps none is as striking as the commercials for Renault and Nissan that broke during the middle of 2011. Nobody (seriously, NOBODY) can fail to notice the similarities between Nissan’s ‘Leaf’ spot through TBWA and Renault’s ZE through Publicis Conseil.

When the story first broke, there were reports of accusation and counter-accusation between the two agencies. Even more interesting was the fact that in 1999 the two automakers became strategic partners and took ownership stakes in each other. Clearly there would be some economies of scale from this, but marketing and sales were two areas that were apparently considered sacrosanct. So, who did the dirty deed?

Then the news broke that perhaps neither had a right to the creative high ground for their respective executions. If the Leaf and EZ spots seemed closely related, then the DNA trail was further extended to a speculative spot produced by some German film students the year before for Mutsubishi’s i-Miev which, while it seems to have had very little if any airtime, did garner several ad industry awards.

“How despicable that the ad was stolen from some German students” I thought. “I know they were pushing green technology but this was probably not the kind of recycling they had in mind.”

All went quiet in the industry press (hardly surprising – the marketing news publications always prefer to lick the hand that feeds them rather than bite it), and I had pretty much forgotten about it until recently, when I stumbled across this spot on YouTube; a Public Service Announcement from ‘Plug In America’, an advocacy group for electric powered vehicles. It was uploaded in the fall of 2010, which kinda predates the Mitsubishi execution. As if the whole scenario were not bizarre enough already, the PSA is executed in the well-trodden Mac vs PC style, which led one of the viewers on YouTube to comment “Get your own idea!”, with no concept of how ironic this would prove to be.

The album art for Talking Heads’ 1981 release ‘Stop Making Sense’ offered the opinion that there are a finite number of jokes in the universe. Maybe the same is true of advertising and musical creation too.

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