Tropes can only get you so far - is lack of original thinking hampering campaigns?

They say there's no such thing as an original idea any more. But at what point does a campaign concept move from homage or 'trope' to outright idea theft?

(Clockwise from top left) 'Emma' (2019), 'Meet Graham' (2016), 'Sinking House' (2019), 'Floating House' (2015)
(Clockwise from top left) 'Emma' (2019), 'Meet Graham' (2016), 'Sinking House' (2019), 'Floating House' (2015)

The issue re-emerged this week with two new campaigns.

'Emma', the Virgo Health campaign for office equipment-supplier Fellowes, depicts an office worker from the future, with hunched shoulders, swollen arms and legs, and cracked skin. It shows the dangers of unhealthy workspaces and poor working habits.

In my view, the concept has strong echoes of 'Meet Graham', the multi-Cannes Lion-winning campaign from 2016 that shows what a human being would need to look like to survive a car crash.

Interestingly, two Lions juries dismissed 'Meet Graham' for similarities to 1985's anti-smoking campaign 'First Natural Born Smoker' - which shows a man with a large nose, self-cleaning lungs, and extra eyelids.

James McGrath, creative chairman of Clemenger BBDO Melbourne, the agency behind 'Meet Graham', told Campaign at the time that his team had "never heard of" 'First Natural Born Smoker' and it was "absolutely not the inspiration".

Despite similarities, 'Emma' has, in my view, a slightly different premise. It depicts what individuals will look like if they don't change their ways, rather than showing what they would have to look like to continue as they are.

Virgo Health MD Ondine Whittington said that in creating 'Emma', "we certainly took inspiration from all those campaigns that use this type of very human visual storytelling".

She added: "For our Fellowes campaign, we knew people would have an instinctive response to a human manifestation of their future. By manifesting the impact of the workplace on the human physical form, we were able to deliver a far more visceral story than our Future Work Colleague Report would have done on its own. The impact the campaign achieved for Fellowes, the spot on [the] Jonathan Ross [Show on ITV] and the phenomenal global coverage speak for itself."

It raises the question: can a basic campaign idea become so well-used that it moves into 'trope' territory and, in effect, becomes 'fair game'?

Take the creative chiefs' favourite love-to-hate cliché: floating something big down the Thames – a trope seemingly as old as time, but dating back to at least 1994, when a giant statute of Michael Jackson was manoeuvred along the river through the heart of the capital, to publicise the star's HIStory tour.

The latest iteration is from Extinction Rebellion, which, for my money, has given the cliché a creative twist by using a submerged house to warn of climate change. (It wouldn't be the first house to be floated down the Thames as part of a campaign, incidentally – Hope&Glory did so with its 2015 PRWeek Award-winning 'Floating House' for Airbnb).

I don't believe the same creative twist is evident in the Jacques Froid campaign for Frosty Jacks by Joe from May this year. As we've previously written, the campaign shares a striking resemblance to 'Gregory & Gregory' for Greggs from 2018.

There is no suggestion Joe deliberately stole the campaign idea. But both campaigns show their respective brands rebadged to appear more upmarket and served to foodies at the same festival. Both videos also show members of the public enjoying the products, and their surprise as the brands' true identity is revealed.

Asked about the similarities, Joe did not mention Gregory & Gregory but said "some of the tonal reference points" were Lidl's 'Little Market' video from 2015 and the 'Pepsi Challenge' from the 1970s.

To be fair, Lidl's 'Little Market' did use a similar premise in a similar setting.

As did a campaign from autumn 2018 in which American discount shoe retailer Payless ShoeSource was renamed Palessi and given a boutique facelift, tricking some influencers to pay hundreds of dollars for shoes worth no more than $20 or $30.

So where is the line? Legally, the simple fact is that a creative idea, per se, can't be copyrighted.

Persephone Bridgman Baker, senior associate at law firm Carter-Ruck, explains: "It is a classic tension in copyright law that only an original expression of an idea can be protected by copyright, not the idea itself. For there to be any protection of an idea, first the idea must be created so that it exists in a tangible way.

"Artists often look to other artists for inspiration, and that is evident in the similarities in the underlying ideas of different campaigns.

"However, it is not – for example – blind tasting of repackaged high-street products that is protected, but the copy and footage created for the advert, and any branding output associated with the product. If those are copied, imitation may no longer be the sincerest form of flattery, but copyright infringement."

Legal issues aside, there's an argument that, executed well and with the right results, there's no harm in adapting an existing campaign idea.

But, in my view, if PR wants to truly grow its reputation as a creative force, it should focus on original thinking, using all the skills of earned-media specialists to produce something engaging that adland can't match.

Tropes can only get you so far.

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