BOOK EXCERPT: It's been done before. So what?

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Let us for a moment consider Hans Guido von Bülow, the composer of such romantic piano works as "Iphigenie in Aulis Reverie Fantastique" and "Tarantella Valse Caracteristique."

Von Bülow was a powerful, influential man whose musical blessing was sought after by many a young composer. One day, as the story goes, the conductor agreed to listen to the composition of an ambitious youngster whose name is lost to history. Von Bülow was expecting not much at all and was shocked to witness the young man take a seat at the piano and unfurl one magnificent musical passage after another. He was shocked mainly because every single one of the melodic elements had been lifted wholesale from other composers of the day. Nonetheless, when the student finished playing, he looked expectantly at von Bülow and asked, "Maestro, how do you like it?"

Von Bülow answered positively. "I have always liked it," he said.

universal larceny

I invoke the von Bülow anecdote for three reasons. First, the question of originality is so often at the heart of advertising decisions, and within the industry contempt for those who display lack of originality-or, worse yet, a little bit of larceny-is very nearly universal.

The second reason is that, as you may have noted, the eager musical plagiarist in question is not only anonymous but dead for approximately one hundred years-unlike certain currently living advertising professionals with hard-earned reputations and access to quality legal counsel. Therefore please note: In the examples that follow, nobody is making any accusations. Nobody's integrity is being called into question. Obviously-when it comes, for example, to two commercials that are virtually identical-nobody has necessarily copycatted anything. It's probably just a big misunderstanding.

Still, if the subject is originality, we must begin with the presumption that this is a value that should be treasured above all, because in its absence creativity is in jeopardy, integrity is at stake, and advertising is ill-served. Eh?

* A 1991 Chiat/Day commercial for NutraSweet titled "Blah, Blah, Blah"-filled with copy that went "Blah, blah, blah"-was virtually identical to a 1989 Ally & Gargano ad for Dunkin' Donuts called "Blah, Blah, Blah," which was filled with copy that went "Blah, blah, blah."

* A 2000 spot from DDB, Amsterdam, for Central Beheer insurance, was about a jealous cement-truck operator dumping his mixer's contents into the convertible of a man he incorrectly assumed to be courting his wife. This was somewhat similar to a 1998 commercial for Kmart's Route 66 jeans, in which a jealous cement-truck operator dumped his mixer's contents into the convertible of a man he incorrectly assumed to be courting his wife.

* Finally, there was the 1989 Cannes Grand Prix for the Spanish national television network, about a dog going to ridiculous, escalating, special-effects-assisted extremes to get his master's attention. Two years later, U S West came out with a spot about a dog going to ridiculous, escalating, special-effects-assisted extremes to get his master's attention.

Those are but a few of many examples of ... uh .... like I said ... big misunderstandings. And I think there is a tendency for most creative people to look at such misunderstandings and feel contempt, or at least pity, for those involved. The US West spot, for instance, was sent to me by a PR woman from the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. Two days later, she followed up with a phone call.

"Did the package arrive?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "It arrived."

"Did you like it?" she asked.

"I have always liked it," I replied.

The PR woman, apparently a woeful ignoramus in the area of 19th century German musical romanticism, didn't pick up the allusion-just as not one-tenth of 1% of the viewers of the U S West spot detected it as the big misunderstanding it clearly was. Which raises the question: If an idea is stolen in the forest, and nobody is around to notice it, does it make a difference?

The answer is no. As long as there is no intersection of audiences, there is absolutely no reason why an idea that worked-or even failed-in Spain can't be expropriated and imported here.

god was probably right

I mean, for the most part, God was probably right. But with this "Thou shalt not steal" thing ... well, uh, dear Lord, just do me a little favor. Please check out a 1996 spot from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London, for Faberge's Lynx cologne and then define steal. Because seldom have 60 seconds of TV advertising owed a debt to so many sources.

The scene was a chichi cocktail party, full of overwrought "beautiful people" and lots of wide-angle close-ups to accentuate the grotesquerie. The scene had elements of Fellini and equal parts "Midnight Cowboy," "The Graduate" and "Stardust Memories."

The hero was a single young guy, awkward and out of his element but trying unsuccessfully to play it cool. Early on he wolfed down an hors d'oeuvre but found it inedible. So he spit it out, a la Tom Hanks in "Big." Next we saw him as a clumsy Woody Allen type, trying to impress a gorgeous woman by leaning casually against a mannequin he thought would support his weight. It didn't. Over he went-springing back up ridiculously, but familiarly, just as Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau used to do.

Humiliated, he retreated to a powder room to regain his composure and discovered a bottle of Lynx cologne. Spraying it all over himself, he was suddenly transformed into a Jim Carrey-esque weirdo hyperstud, complete with the hairdo. All very cute-even if we'd seen it all before. Indeed, the familiarity of the gags had nothing on the familiarity of the strategy. The self-mocking style and hyperbolic premise of the ad were themselves a direct lift from '60s-era American men's cologne Hai Karate.

This ad wantonly looted from every address in Mediaville. With no harm to anybody, least of all Faberge. Lynx sold like gangbusters, God knows.

Let's consider three of the most heralded campaigns of the last 15 years, big winners all of them in the marketplace and at Cannes. The first, for Maxell, won the Grand Prix in 1990. It showed a young English tough, with a leather jacket, spiky hair, and an armful of cue cards. The soundtrack was from "Into the Valley" by the punk band the Skids. As the song played, the fellow danced in place while turning the cue cards one by one, "translating" the difficult-to-register lyrics:

Into the valley

Peas sure sound divine.

Sissy suffered you

But who can viv iron?

The soldiers go marching

There's masses of lamb.

Whose disease is cat skin?

The picture in Hugh's toe

Ahoy, ahoy, Len see a sty.

Ahoy, ahoy, barman and soda

Ahoy, ahoy, juicy men

embalmed her.

Ahoy, ahoy, lung nearly gave.

It was hilarious-not because the Skids' lyrics were weird but because, as a viewer gradually came to realize, the transcription was so screwed up. Nobody would write "Juicy men embalmed her," for crying out loud. That was the point. The guy had it all wrong. The comedy was rooted in the famous unintelligibility of rock lyrics. (More on this shortly.)

`whasssup?'

Exactly 10 years later the Grand Prix at Cannes went to an odd and lovable campaign for Budweiser beer. It featured four friends, hanging around their various apartments, on a Sunday afternoon. They stayed in touch on the phone, in conversations limited pretty much to two words: "What's up?" Except they didn't say "What's up?" What they said, in increasingly elongated enunciations, was "Whasssssssuuuuuup?!" The characters were all black, and the gag was rooted in a playfully, self-consciously exaggerated spasm of "black English."

The ad wasn't just some goofy inside-black-culture joke but a universal expression of eloquent male inarticulateness. What women can do with smiley, sympathetic head nodding men do with an ostensibly perfunctory greeting. These aren't mere words and gestures; they are bonds of understanding.

"Whasssup?" didn't mean, "Pray, have you any news you'd care to impart?" It meant, "You are my friend, and if you are doing anything interesting-interesting being defined as watching football and swilling beer-I'm in favor of doing it together."

So-unlike, say, Miller Lite's "Dick" campaign-this advertising absolutely understood its target. Furthermore, it was simply irresistible.

That's what turned the tide in the jury voting. There reportedly was some dissension among those who recognized the campaign's parallels to a Brazilian campaign for Brahma beer, which also had football watchers on the phone-not gargling "Whasssup?" but enigmatically hissing "Tssssssssssss" (which turned out to be the sound of a Brahma beer being popped open). No problem, however. "Whasssup?!" sailed to the Grand Prix.

the pink bunny

Finally, there was the famed Energizer bunny. I remember the first time I saw this campaign the way I remember the JFK assassination. The year was 1989. I was in Tupelo, Miss., birthplace of Elvis, watching TV in a nondescript Hilton. On the screen came a commercial for Nasatene Mist, some nasal decongestant. The spot began with some suffering wretch on his lawn, sniffing flowers his daughter had brought him and moaning, in misery, "Oh, my sinuses!" Then came the obligatory lab-coated presenter flogging the advertised product: "Only Nasatene has Muconol, the patented. ... "

Oh, please. I lay there in bed, snorting at the cookie-cutter construction of the commercial. The brand was new to me, but the format was so familiar it was as if it were bolted together on some patent-medicine-ad assembly line. "I can't believe people get paid to produce this crap," I said to myself. Next thing I knew, a pink, drum-whacking Energizer bunny intruded on the scene and walked straight across the fake "Nasatene" spot, "going and going."

I'm pretty sure this was the first time I gave a TV commercial a standing ovation. Yes, me, in my underwear, standing on my bed-my taut sinews rippling, excessive hotel-room ventilation blowing heroically through my hair, my $17 room-service pizza bobbing on the mattress like a speedboat in light chop-applauding and hooting with approval.

Because it was brilliant. Because it was unexpected. Because I, Mr. Pundit, had been so terrifically taken in. Bravo!

The campaign didn't win at Cannes that year, though, because of a bit of a scandal. The jury became aware of a similar ad, done three years earlier in the United Kingdom, for Carling Black Label beer. In that spot action from one commercial spilled into two subsequent fake commercials for fake products.

That's right: the creative conceit was identical. Never mind that the Energizer commercials were far better produced and that the joke was vastly more relevant to batteries ("Keeps going and going") than it ever was for beer. In fact, in the Carling commercial the gimmick was merely a clever idea in search of a sponsor. In the Energizer campaign it was a perfect metaphor for the central selling proposition. No matter, though. The bunny was deemed too derivative of Carling and summarily eliminated from Grand Prix consideration.

So what did win that year? Maxell won. Which was interesting, because it was no less derivative than Energizer. The idea of a single, mute presenter flipping cue cards was itself lifted from "Don't Look Back," a 1965 D.A. Pennebacker documentary on Bob Dylan. In the opening sequence Dylan stands camera-center, displaying the transcribed lyrics to "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Oh, well. Maybe the statute of limitations had expired.

By the year 2000, not only did Cannes so embrace "Whasssup?!" that it was prepared to disregard the precursor Brahma campaign, the jury also conveniently ignored the genesis of "Whasssup?!"

The vignette didn't begin as Bud advertising; it began as a short film used as a spec piece by director Charles Stone. Someone from DDB saw the piece, a bell rang in his head, and the appropriation of the concept for his Budweiser client was the result. Not only was the commercial not an original idea; it was stolen from itself.

Am I saying, then, that it, too, should have been disqualified? No, no, no, no, no. I am saying the opposite. It was a perfect expression of a universal experience. It resonated with the target audience. It was unexpected. It was entertaining. It was in every respect great advertising.

misplaced focus

All of these campaigns were creative achievements-which is not synonymous with "never been done before." Far from treasuring originality as the advertising value to hold most dear, there is really no point-most of the time-in getting hung up on it at all.

If advertising existed for the purpose of aesthetically engaging the viewer in pursuit of universal truth, if advertising were an end in itself and the expression of its creator were its essential purpose, the answer would be perfunctory: authorship means ownership. But advertising creatives are not artists, nor auteurs. They are businessmen-or at least they're supposed to be. Their job is not to explore the unexplored. It is to sell stuff.

Derivation has always been a fact of creative life. Shakespeare owed an enormous debt to Seneca, Plautus, Plutarch, Marlowe, Ovid and the Bible. I don't know what the interest would be on that debt, but let's just say that if Ovid weren't dead, he'd be a very rich man.

This gets to the third and final reason I chose the opening von Bülow anecdote. I stole it, from a volume titled "The Book of Anecdotes," published by Little, Brown & Co. and available at a fine bookstore near you.

So don't even think of it as "stolen." Think of it as any self-respecting advertising person would: new and improved.

"And Now A Few Words from Me" will be available in February (McGraw-Hill Trade/Ad Age Books; $24.95).

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