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Creative Analysis: Too Close For Comfort?

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Competitors Cry Foul Over Deutsch's New Mitsubishi Work
In an industry that prides itself on clever ideas, no criticism stings quite as much as the accusation that an ad is unoriginal.
In the latest installment of As The Ad World Turns, a new Mitsubishi Galant campaign from Deutsch has generated a charge of plagiarism.
Two executives at rival car agencies-- Ron Lawner of Boston's Arnold Communications and Pat Fallon of Minneapolis' Fallon McElligott--are griping that Deutsch's inaugural effort for Mitsubishi is derivative of work they produced for their auto clients. Been-there-done-that scoffing at the competition is nothing new.
This time, one executive accuses Deutsch of lifting specific copy points while the other complains that the positioning and execution of the Mitsubishi work is suspiciously familiar.
Created by Deutsch in Marina del Rey, Calif. and New York, the TV campaign for Mitsubishi urges consumers to "Wake up and drive" in spots featuring high-energy footage of a car zipping through different urban and suburban environments. Quick cuts of the moving car are set to Republica's "Ready to Go" and Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" while flashing white type sends messages such as "The other soccer moms will talk" or "No one will ever notice the baby seat." The campaign, says Eric Hirshberg, executive vice president/creative director of Deutsch's West Coast office, "is designed to show that the cars look and make you feel young."
Ron Lawner, chief creative officer of Arnold, contends the Deutsch spots not only mimic the overall positioning of his agency's Volkswagen "Driver's Wanted" campaign but borrow specific copy lines to boot.
You be the judge.
An introductory teaser spot in the Mitsubishi effort, showing a vista of the open road, states, "There is life after four doors." It's hard to argue that the line isn't extremely close to one used in VW ads that asks, "Is there life after four doors?" Knowing that agencies exhaustively research any category before diving in, it's unlikely that Deutsch did not stumble across this line before.
Lawner also takes issue with the Mitsubishi tagline "Wake up and drive," noting its similarity to an early VW spot Arnold produced that opened with the phrase "Wake Up." "This is not imitation and therefore a sincere form of flattery," he says. "This is a blatant rip-off of VW's position." Both campaigns, says Lawner, position the brands as "driver's cars."
Pat Fallon, chairman of Fallon McElligott, also sees more than a passing resemblance between his shop's BMW work and the new Mitsubishi campaign, mainly in the style and tone of the executions.
"I'm surprised about the VW accusation because I thought [Mitsubishi] was a rip-off of [BMW]," says Fallon.
Fallon's image campaign for BMW, boasts of the car's superior performance traits, such as "blink-of-the-eye-braking." Both the BMW and Mitsubishi spots use single colors or muted tones. The BMW spots are black and white. The Mitsubishi spots are in different tints, one sepia-toned, another blue.
In both, fast-paced footage of the car is propelled by aggressive music tracks and accented by white moving type. In Mitsubishi, white blinking type fades in and out of the horizon. BMW uses white type that moves across a black background. Some camera angles are similar, but hey, very few car ads can resist winding roads and flashy wheel shots.
Are these production elements enough to warrant the charge of plagiarism? Are the strategies similar enough to merit a copycat accusation? The music, the quick cuts, the energy promote all the cars as fun to drive. But Volkswagen wasn't the first to claim that its cars are a thrill to drive--and it won't be the last. Interestingly, Deutsch, a finalist in the 1995 review for the Volkswagen account, pitched a drivers-themed campaign with the tag "Go." Taglines are protected by law; phrases and techniques are not.
Is Donny Deutsch, chairman and CEO of Deutsch, bothered by swipes at his agency's creative integrity? "That's so comical I can't even dignify it with a response. The children should go back to their crayons," he says. Hirshberg echoes his sentiments. "It's so absurd it's not worthy of a response."
Is this a case of the competition getting too close for comfort? Are past rivalries heating up the dog days of summer? Or is ad creativity running dry? Maybe all three.
Lawner readily admits he would have kept quiet had Deutsch not snubbed Arnold in a '95 interview with USA Today saying: "If we don't win, I'd like to see Arnold win because that would show the client is afraid of really shaking things up."
Originality is elusive. Its meaning changes with each person's perceptions and experiences. No one can own an idea, and ideas beget ideas. Advertising borrows from the culture and even itself. But when two "similar" campaigns run at the same time in the same category, eyebrows will be raised. In the hazy world of idea ownership, where law does not prevail, good taste should.
--with Michael McCarthy and Judy Warner