A Chinese Washing Machine Brand Blatantly Lifted Design Army’s Stunning Ballet Campaign

New ads circulating online seem copied almost exactly

Side-by-side images of Design Army
Design Army's 2018 Hong Kong Ballet creative, at left, was copied without credit by Little Swan, one of China's 20 most valuable brands.
Headshot of David Griner

Last week, Pum Lefebure began to get a flurry of messages from her contacts in Asia, all with a similar question: “Have you seen this?”

Co-founder and chief creative officer of the celebrated Washington, D.C., agency Design Army, Lefebure has an extensive global network of clients, peers and fans, and some who use Chinese social and messaging apps like WeChat or Weibo had noticed something circulating on the apps that seemed frustratingly familiar.

As she soon learned, a Chinese washing machine brand called Little Swan had launched an ad campaign that was lifted almost 100 percent from Design Army’s 2018 visual rebranding campaign for the Hong Kong Ballet. While many ad campaigns duplicate themes, techniques or visual metaphors drawn from other marketing, this one is rather blatant.

Most of the contacts messaging Lefebure were shocked and infuriated when they saw the copycat campaign. Perhaps more unnervingly, one of her Asian clients saw it and asked if Design Army was behind the new campaign as well.

“It’s OK to be inspired,” Lefebure tells Adweek. “It’s not OK to trace and copy and pull in stuff, then bill your client for the creative work you didn’t really do.”

Here’s a look at how some of the images compare:

In two of the executions, the visuals seem to have been reshot almost exactly as originally designed by Design Army and photographer Dean Alexander. In the version with the dancer doing vertical splits, however, the same photograph seems to have been used with only minor adjustment (namely flipping it to a mirror image).

Little Swan is no small mom-and-pop business lacking the means to build its own ambitious campaign. Its parent company, Midea, says Little Swan was founded in 1958 as China’s first washing machine manufacturer and today is “among the 20 most valuable brands in China, with valuation estimated at 15.02 Billion RMB.” Adweek has reached out to Midea for comment on the similarity between the two campaigns, and we will update this article if we hear back.

It would also be hard for Little Swan to argue it was unaware of the Hong Kong Ballet campaign, which, in addition to running in the same country, was widely featured by news outlets around the world.

For her part, Lefebure is handling the situation with good spirit and, while frustrated, says she holds no grudge against or disrespect for the Chinese marketing community.

“As creative people, we all get inspired by someone; I understand that,” she says. “But when you start grabbing things, pulling them apart, photoshopping things and reshooting them without trying to hide anything—then you bill the client, put their logo on it, that’s too far.”

She does worry that social media’s sharing economy has created confusion around intellectual property and the ethics of building on someone else’s creative work. Lefebure hopes this incident will be used as an educational lesson for young designers and marketers.

“I’m not sure that kind of education is being communicated to the future generation,” she says. “I hope someone tells them this isn’t right.”

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@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."