Originality in advertising. A subjective view

I still recall the stark print advertisement, years ago, which sparked my love of advertising.

Done well, advertising grabs your attention, stimulates your emotions and is highly memorable.

However, emotions are also aroused within the advertising world on the issue of originality.

According to Campaign China, advertising agency DDB Group Hong Kong has succumbed to criticism and re-edited a current Towngas television commercial, after clamour over a perceived lack of originality by the public and claims of conceptual theft by competitor agencies.

The 30-second TVC launched in June to celebrate 150 years in Hong Kong, and showed a series of Towngas technicians standing or walking through a multitude of Hong Kong locations, from historic to contemporary. As a one-time resident of Hong Kong, the film generated in me the clearly intended sense of pride in the city and the contribution of The Hong Kong and China Gas Company Limited.

The action within the spot has been likened to the videos of idiosyncratic dancer and world traveller, Matt Harding. The “Dancing Man” videos had become a viral phenomenon and Matt’s travels were subsequently sponsored by Visa as an advertising campaign. Strangely, the degree of originality in that campaign has not been questioned!

The rationale for the claim of plagiarism is that, like Matt, the actor remains centred in frame while intercutting between different locations. Centre-frame is hardly an original placement and was understandably necessary for consistency.

As a professional film-maker and someone who had seen the “Dancing Man” videos, I made absolutely no correlation with it while watching the Towngas spot.

If centre-frame was the focus, then why not identify the source as the online campaign for Johnnie Walker, in which actor Robert Carlyle narrates the history of the brand for over six minutes, as he continuously walks toward a receding camera?

The concept is not unique. In fact the very first television commercial on which I worked, (in 1983), consisted of a male model, centred in frame, walking toward a reverse tracking camera on multiple locations!

An adman from a competitor agency commented on the Towngas concept, “While there’s nothing strictly criminal .. ” !! What an inference! Some may consider that if a lack of originality in advertising concepts was criminal, there would be precious few creatives not ‘doing time’.

Originality is mostly demonstrated in the clever ways in which existing elements are perceived or recombined, and only very rarely in the components themselves.

I would be levelled with claims of unoriginality if I reverted to famous quotations, but there are many which reflect upon the difficulty in creating anything original, more so than ever today, with the immediacy and immense volume of content generated.

In today’s dynamic media environment, it is an entirely impossible task for any creative to absorb all motion picture media (advertising award entries, publicly aired spots, dramatic shorts, feature films, music clips, online videos). With YouTube adding more than a day’s viewing material every hour, how can anyone realistically expect to be exposed to all current and past creative concepts. How could they possibly remember all these, and guarantee no similarity between their work and a existing concept?

There is a vast difference between lazy duplication and a thematic resemblance.

Naturally, where there are agencies competing for big accounts within declining TVC markets, and individual creatives whose egos, professional reputations, awards and commercial successes are based on the concept of originality, debate will continue.

 

 

Sources:

Campaign China

The original Towngas TVC

Dancing Man videos

Robert Carlyle for Johnnie Walker

The best ads on TV

Towngas 150

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