Wednesday, July 5, 2017


by Roger Pe
July 6, 2017 issue
Business Mirror

Back in the early 90s, when Philippine advertising entered a new phase, and ads that were called “malinis” (produced with polish but not exactly compelling) were no longer potential award winners, ad agency people shelled out cash every payday. They made payments, handed out to Mrs. Salta, a businesswoman who peddled rare-to-find advertising creativity books.

Mrs. Salta became a fixture in the Philippine Madison Avenue firmament during that time. She made glossy, imported books affordable by offering “6-drops” or more, depending on one’s capacity to pay.

It was safe to say that most people who worked in an advertising agency knew Mrs. Salta. The security guards, receptionist, accountants, people in the creative department, including secretaries, the suits and, yes, even the industry chi-chi crowd knew of her.

She was completely the antithesis of the ambulant tocino ‘suki’ who visited Makati offices often. She dressed to the nines and did it with style. She had a bodyguard who always carried bags of them, and she had a shimmering white van parked somewhere near her place of business.

Creative department secretaries would suddenly sought her upon request of concept teams who were experiencing a drought of ideas. For those who had plenty of cash to spare and wanted tomes of them, she would gladly escort them to her splendid vehicle, to let them see her other stuff not available in any bookstore in the Philippines. 

Mrs. Salta became a buzzword so much so that she had a parody account in an advertising rant site, Café Creatives. Though people forgot her given name and remembered only her family name, she became more popular.

Her bestsellers were The Art Directors Annual (very thick, you could knock an unusually big rat out using it), The One Show (a copywriter’s dream), Epica (for those who wanted to poke their noses on what’s hot in Europe), and the Communication Arts series (they were the bomb and they made most Art Directors drool).

During the time of pagers, they were the creative‘gadgets’ to show off when advertising congresses opened. Though a little pricey, they were quickly gobbled up as soon as the security guard at the lobby hollered, “Mrs. Salta is in the building, show up or hide now!”

Mrs. Salta’s goods were in demand. Whether a few months delayed, or hot-off-the-press, they brought some kind of approval from industry colleagues. They made the guy next to your cubicle envy, a magnet to many, the cantankerous, introverts and other characters inhabiting the creative sanctuary. A copy on your table erased people’s initial impression of you, that you were not a run-of-the-mill hire and you had taste in your bones itching to surface. 

Some say, Mrs. Salta was advertising God’s gift to advertising. “When all you see were product freights and boring manufacturer’s copy lines, Mrs. Salta was an oasis in the middle of a creative desert. You call her and she brings in books, pronto. Her wares inspired many. Sadly, some creative people ended up with work sounding like ads (that Doc Martens ad was legendary) from the books she sold,” a former copywriter, now a top creative director says.

When the Internet got a little faster and and its derivative sites entered the scene, Mrs. Salta’s books faded into the night. They became remnants of the past and gathered dust on many shelves, along with the old trophies of the Ad Congress. She, too, gently exited out of the picture.

Inspirational books, annuals and youtube

Some of us have been in advertising long enough to see the many transformations that have happened in the industry. Though the digital divide may have rendered some people in the industry into dinosaurs, many have crossed over and felt like a digital native. 

Where innovation and change in the industry continue to alter our landscape, one thing remained constant. Agency oldtimers, even the millennial generation, were taught to value creativity and honor, disdain from copying one’s work, confuse the public and mislead the consumer. 

There would be interesting debates. Occasionally, one would stumble into them on social media. Some would invoke the often quoted line, “great men think alike”, “there is no originality in this age anymore”, “it’s just plain coincidence” and all those stuff.

Some believed in the spin that people have put into that, “copying is innovation.” In the book “Borrowing Brilliance” by David Kord Murry, the author revealed: “Brilliance is borrowed, and that in order to create, first, you have to copy.” 

Don’t raise your eyebrows.

Many famous men were accused of ripping other people’s work like Newton, Shakespeare, Helen Keller, J.K. Rowling, T.S. Eliott, Jane Godall, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Google guys, to name a few. According to Murry, their ideas were constructed from borrowed ideas. Newton admitted his guilt that to “see farther, he had to stand on the shoulders of giants and build on the ideas of others.” 

But creativity for brands is a valuable asset. Though philosophers have time and again, argued that “ideas give birth to other ideas”, one is tempted to ask: “Does that give license to one to copy someone else’s work?”

The term Renaissance during the 14th century means creative explosion. Artists, during the earlier part of this wonderful period, were obligated to improve the original, give a rebirth of some sort to the stale status quo. Innovation, enhancements and collaboration efforts in which one idea was copied were the rule of the day. Copying was understood and expected.

But soon after, the free market economy began to develop and artists who valued their work began to break away from their patrons and sold their artwork independently. Michaelangelo and Da Vinci signed their masterpieces against copycats and frauds. Copying and plagiarism were now condemned.

Furthermore, Murry explained” “We are forced to conceal or disguise the source of our ideas for fear of social or legal retribution. No one wants to admit for fear of being labeled as plagiarist or idea thief.”

Today, whether one is an industry old-timer or barely new in advertising, one can see a virtual rip-off, tweaked, rehashed, recycled or derived from another idea within the universe that he or she moves - because of the Internet where one can do research fast, the task is a lot easier. 

In an industry that honors creativity and originality, you know the feeling of being uncomfortable, much more dismayed, at the sight of an ad with uncanny similarities to the one that you once encountered. 

Déjà vu

We recently had a spate of familiar ads and they created quite a buzz. Here are some of the most talked-about over the last twelve months:

Vodafone TV Commercial, 2014. Touching and emotional, this one, from Jung von Matt advertising agency Germany, manages to be moving without being mushy. A young girl crosses items off her grandfather’s bucket list and, through the magic of her gadget, takes him along to her many travel adventures. The bucket list “crossing out” scene is the highlight of the ad as it is repeated often as the commercial progresses. 

Smart TV Commercial, 2017: Except for the change of characters and setting, the story is virtually the same. The granddaughter now becomes a young man. The elderly man becomes an elderly woman. The opening shot (guy on top of a hill and “crossing out” scene in particular are very noticeable.

Digital Media UK, Corporate Brand Identity, 2014: Triangular in shape, color elements of the logo are in bright primary and secondary colors.

PLDT Logo, 2016: Almost the exact replica of the former.

McDonald's TV Commercial, 2007: This tv commercial produced in 2007 is echoed in a Jollibee tv spot a decade later. The ad uses a famous Eraserhead song ("Ang Huling El Bimbo) as soundtrack, and opens with a narrative of a man who remembers his childhood sweetheart. “Tuwing pupunta ako dito, naaalaala ko ang lahat,” he says with a lambent voice. He tells us how he met her and eating out together with their moms. The commercial ends with a sad note through passage of time to the present. The girl is now married and introduces him to her husband. A voice wafts in the air with “At kahit hindi kami naging sa huli, s’ya pa rin ang first love ko.”

JollibeeTV Commercial, 2017: The ad opens with a title “Inspired by a true story” and a hashtag (that it is a brand series). It then takes us to a wedding scene where a man starts to reminisce how he met the girl in a fastfood store. From his narrative, the audience is made to believe that the man and the girl will say “I do” in a few minutes. We are told that he vowed to make her laugh, always be there whenever she needed him, never change and make her the happiest girl. But the storytelling trick and punchline, “Kahit hindi naging tayo” break our hearts. The girl is marrying another man.

The DOT "Sights" tv commercial and a South African Tourism ad heve a central figure that caused a maelstrom nationwide, Asian adlandia, and even landed on the pages of Advertising Age and Adweek New York. The bone of contention was the use of a blind man throughout the material. The controversy is perhaps, tIn biggest in local advertising industry, eclipsing the scandal spawnd by "Nakatikim Ka Na Ba Ng Kinse Anyos?". In the ensuing events, DOT fired McCann WorldGroup Philippines, the ad agency, for the similarity.

Where’s the line between copying and coincidence in similar creative ideas? We interview advertising copywriter Dan Goldgeier, a provocative advertising and marketing columnist for based in Seattle, Washington and here’s what he said

Do you believe what some people say that nothing is original in this world anymore?

Goldgeier: “That's a pretty complicated question. I think people can take parts of other ideas and synthesize them into something original. But in advertising, as you know, of course, we work in familiar formulas: Story, layouts, headline formulas, visual techniques, etc, so it feels like there's little original happening.”

Goldgeier also granted us permission to reprint his article on the subject in full:

“Recently, some ad veterans were noticing, and lamenting, the similarities between this Nike ad (1995) and Kaiser Permanente ad that ran during the summer Olympics.

Yes, the two commercials have much in common. And the Kaiser ad is many degrees inferior to the Nike spot.

For those of you who weren’t in this business 20 years ago, it’s hard to overstate how admired, lauded, and inspirational the Nike “If You Let Me Play” ad was. Not just to its intended audience, but to the ad industry as a whole. It’s one of the ads that made me want to get into the business and attempt to do that caliber of work.

So for advertising people of a certain generation, alarm bells went off when watching the Kaiser spot. Was it a blatant rip-off, a heartfelt homage or mere coincidence?

I don’t claim to know how this happened. But I’ve been in advertising long enough to know that ad ideas often share attributes with work that’s been previously done.

I’m not interested in assigning blame here. I’m much more interested in the nuances of the decision-making process involved, because it’s a window into the current state of creativity in advertising and marketing.

Did somebody know about the similarities in the KP spot before it got filmed? By “somebody” I mean anyone, including the creative team, their Creative Directors, AE’s, agency management, producers, directors, and all the associated layers of client marketers.

There are only three basic scenarios to explain what happened:

1) Somebody knew there was a similarity and didn’t speak up.

It’s a TV spot running during the Olympics. There’s a lot at stake for all involved. “Let’s hope no one really notices” is a quiet thought in the minds of many ad professionals when they’re pursuing an idea that could backfire.

Someone could’ve also noticed similarities a little further down the timeline — after concepts were approved, budgets were determined, and the production hairball began rolling down the mountain. Is it better to remain silent than be the voice that derails a major project? You try putting on the brakes with millions of dollars involved. It’s not easy.

2) Somebody knew there was a similarity and did, in vain, speak up.
“You know, that idea kind of reminds me of…” I’ve heard that a bunch. I’ve said it sometimes, too. That kind of reservation can fall on deaf ears. Perhaps a less forceful team member who voiced objections was slapped down and told to shut up. Don’t underestimate the collective power of a bunch of people in a conference room to justify bad decisions or pretend the elephant in the room doesn’t really exist.

And don’t underestimate the power of a C-level client executive to say, “You know, I’d love to do a spot like this one,” as he or she sends YouTube links out to underlings and the agency. For client-side marketers, their careers go merrily on even when encouraging or approving derivative advertising.

Faced with a similar situation, many people in our business, according to Goldgeier, would state out loud that they don’t care if a proposed ad resembled an older one. Think of how it easily it could be justified: A change in target audience, or product category, could be enough differentiation in their eyes. It’s no wonder our industry’s code of ethics would fit on a Post-it note.

3) Nobody knew there was a similarity.

Were the entire team of agency and client folks working on the KP ad simply unaware of the Nike spot? It might sound far-fetched, but yes, it’s possible.

I’ve taught aspiring copywriters who knew next to nothing about the ad industry and its history. Hell, they didn’t even watch “Mad Men.” And don’t assume that junior creatives have ever perused the dusty copies of CA and One Show annuals that line the bookshelves in the remote corners of agencies.

Plus, our digital world has left old-school advertising uncataloged. While YouTube is a good repository of many old commercials, there’s no organization to it.  And good luck trying to find hi-res images of old print ads the ad world used to celebrate.

Many people currently working in advertising and marketing simply don’t bother to learn about anything that was produced even a few years ago. If they do learn, the old work isn’t considered so sacrosanct that it couldn’t be copied in some regard.

And there are, of course, degrees of rip-off: A copy line, unique visual, commercial plot, app idea, or just a style, film technique, or strategy. Some people merely look at ads from today and no matter how small the detail, it reminds them of some ad long forgotten by much of the world. This doesn’t just happen in advertising. All art forms have this type of conflict. Just ask Chuck Berry.

We’re also in an era in which many new marketing firms have popped up — content marketing firms, consultancies, digital and social media companies, etc. — whose leaders regularly disdain the very idea of “advertising” and declare that it’s dead. For them, even a vaunted Nike ad isn’t a sacred cow.

So what happens now with this particular Kaiser Permanente spot? A whole lot of nothing, that’s what. Other than the kangaroo court of judgy advertising insiders, there is no real punishment for ripping off someone else’s advertising unless there’s a legitimate copyright issue. And those are rare.

Unfortunately, there will never be a consensus as to what’s a rip-off or what’s fair game for appropriation. Crying foul will only generate crocodile tears. So we’ll continue to see new work that feels familiar or derivative, even if it means producing a commercialhat recalls a great Nike spot. Because some people just get away with it, when they just do it.”