Shocker: Advertisers Don’t Like it When We Call Them Out

By Matt Van Hoven 

Lately we’ve been harping on shops for ripping off actual artists’ work. Copying other things is an age-old aspect of advertising and I think one reason we get our undies in a bunch about it is if Kiran, Kaitlin or I “copy” things, we get fired. Advertisers get paid a lot of money, in some cases, for doing the same thing. There’s more to it than that, but plagiarism is the ultimate sin for “journalists” and whether or not anyone cares to think of us as such, we still get fired for it. You get raises.

There are a number of reasons why copying other people’s work is bad, but Mike Wolfsohn at High Wide & Handsome (aka “an uncommonly loyal marketing agency”) disagrees with our habitual wringing out of copy-cat work. Why? Because in a very few cases it works and because advertising is not art, it is commerce. His words, not mine. A lot of reasons why he’s wrong, after the jump.

“Advertsing is not, as some would content, an originality contest. There should be no debate about whether advertising is art or commerce: it is, without question, art in the interest of commerce. We are not filmmakers. We are not painters. We are not poets. We are relationship builders who are paid to connect brands and consumers-note to fulfill our individual creative ambitions.”

His point is a decent one: that when copying something sells widgets, it was totally worth it. Agreed &#151 wait no, disagreed. There’s a reason “thou shalt not steal” is in the world’s oldest, most read book. A) Because it’s wrong and B) more than likely the action causes someone else harm. In advertising’s case, that’s often some creative artist type. Furthermore, entire generations of men and women have built this business into a creative culture &#151 which is the opposite of what Wolfsohn is proposing. This is especially true for shops like TBWA which get profiled in movies like “Art & Copy” for owning the perception that they are extremely creative &#151 as a rule.

So as long as we can agree to call advertising an industry where people copy other people’s work and then try to use their Frankensteins to sell stuff, that’s fine. Otherwise, this will not stand.

“Furthermore, the ‘rip-off’ accusation negligently overlooks the talent required to recognize something in a movie or music video that has a marketing application-not to mention the ability to execute the reinterpretation successfully. (Just look at how many movie remakes have failed at the box office.) If an ad is well executed, well received and accomplishes a business objective, lambasting it for being derivative is nothing short of ignorant (and typically a sign of jealousy).”

Here he’s talking about the limited number of copied ads that have gone on to viral fame. We aren’t sure you need “talent” to recognize that Rube Goldberg’s work is fucking amazing. All it takes is a room full of 20-somethings and an internet connection. Seriously, that’s it &#151 and he’s right, I’m jealous of his ability to look at something and then copy it. Totally super jealous man, you win.

“So, please, bloggers, stop throwing around naïve accusations of plagiarism and focus your critiques on whether or not the work is effective. In the end, that’s the only thing that matters. And I’m pretty sure I stole that philosophy from a lot of creative directors who came before me.”

AgencySpy is mentioned a bunch of times in this post, and since I’ve written the majority of the posts on copying, I’m glad to respond here. Buckle your seatbelts.

Wolfsohn, the only thing naïve about AgencySpy is our faint belief that advertising should be creative, original, and whenever possible relevant. Copied works are the opposite of all those words, which you clearly don’t care about. The basis of this naivete is the fundamental difference between advertising and whatever it is we do here at AgencySpy: your goal is to make money and ours is to call out the bullshit agencies (maybe like yours) pull trying to do it. And yes, it’s naïve to believe in things that probably aren’t true &#151 except when they are and for a moment our notions are proven correct. That’s when we, I, love advertising &#151 when it steps away from commerce to tell me something and doesn’t make me hate the company behind it for being so in touch. Don’t take this as a slight &#151 think of it as a challenge to do something lofty. Otherwise, you’re just one more reason the world hates this business, and for that reason we’ll keep reminding you why plagiarized work is wrong.

note: we fully recognize this as an easy attempt to get press for a new agency.

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