Remix Culture and Advertising

Near the Christmas break, I participated in a black market exchange. It did not involve drugs.

I’d become a fan of a Chinese web novel with a multi-part animated series that had amassed a considerable following of fans. This meant fanwork being produced at fan conventions, where rows of booths sell fanart, pins, and other merch that they’ve created. There aren’t that many big conventions in Australia compared to Asia, so I was happy to be able to attend one in Singapore while I was there on break. More importantly, I wanted to buy merch from the novel. Except that I couldn’t, even though it was there. This particular novelist was known to have a zero-tolerance approach to fanwork. Though she didn’t go as far as suing people, she did have a large army of fans who effectively enforced her decision.

This had the general effect of driving the sale of merchandise underground. A fanwork black market was created where people have resorted to a barter system, trading stickers, and other merch — or Pocky — for art. Promotion was limited to discreet little signs on booths or kept on social media. This had, unsurprisingly, no dampening effect on demand. I went to the convention on the second day, first thing in the morning, and most of the booths had already “sold” out. Remix culture sells, even if you have to access it through some sort of black market. It sells because the customer approaches the product with a pre-existing emotional attachment to the product. That’s why a lot of ads try to tie in to popular movements and media, memes, pull in celebrities, and more. It’s possible to do this right. It’s also possible for it to go wrong — even when you don’t want it to.

Remix Culture and Modern Advertising

You might have seen a brief stoush that popped up during the Superbowl, aka the grand finals of some sport that only Americans really care about that sells the most expensive ad slots in the world. T-Mobile aired a Superbowl ad about its partnership with Lyft that used the popular “This is your Uber driver” meme/joke by @decentbirthday:

There was a furor on Twitter where various users assumed that T-Mobile had stolen the ad, and @decentbirthday eventually had to post a tweet assuring everyone that T-Mobile had licensed the joke from them:

Why did the general public instantly assume the joke had been stolen? Probably because the creative industry doesn’t generally have a great track record on this point. You might have seen the ongoing backlash against the extremely popular Instagram account @fuckjerry, which used to boast 14.3 million users, a following that was built on stealing jokes and content from other people despite being called out for it. The owner of @fuckjerry, Jerry Media, is a social media company that went on to do the social media advertising for the now-infamous Fyre Festival. After that collapsed spectacularly, they then proceeded to produce the popular Netflix documentary that was out this year. A reckoning has been arriving for Jerry Media as comedians and other celebrities banded together to drive an unfollowing campaign, but it stands to see whether the total effect on them would be more than the loss of a few hundred thousand followers.

Moral of the story: Want to use popular memes and jokes in your advertising? Best not to — unless you’re willing to license them and yet still cop possible abuse when people think you’re a thief. Yes, brands get away with copying all the time, especially when swimming through the gray area of copyright law. Not just Jerry Media, but fashion brands like Zara and Old Navy famously copy not just independent artists but big brands like Balenciaga. You might legally get away with it, but you’d damage your brand in the process. In an ad? Copying will just make you look desperately out of ideas.

Advertising Copying Advertising

In 2017, McCann was accused of copying a 2014 ad from South Africa in their work for the Phillippines Department of Tourism and promptly got fired from the $13million account when the similarities were pointed out online. Both ads involved a visually impaired man who visits a foreign country, has various experiences, and whose disability is only revealed at the end when he pulls out a cane at the end. Initially, McCann said:

We acknowledge the feedback that the way this story was told may have similarities with the South African tourism campaign. It is unfortunate that the Philippine Department of Tourism has been called out and accused of plagiarism, for work we have done to highlight the testimonial of a real retiree. We take full responsibility, as all ideas and storyboards presented were conceptualised by McCann Worldgroup Philippines. We also underscore that there has never been any intention to copy others’ creative work. McCann Worldgroup Philippines has always strived to adhere to our guiding principle, ‘Truth Well Told,’ in everything we do. We stand by the integrity with which this campaign was developed.

It’s entirely possible that McCann developed the ad without realizing the South African one existed, though you’d think that an agency that big would have done better due diligence on competitor ads before pitching the concept. In 2014, AirBnB launched a new logo that was promptly called out for looking exactly like the brand identity of Automation Anywhere as well as to a decades’ old design book:

What Chen does bring up, though, is the role of design and the thought-processes behind making a logo, where designers will agree: nothing is original.

“Logos can’t be too unique,” says Mike Hankin, product designer at London design company morrama. “Design is more of a science than an art. In the arts, you can constantly innovate and try out new things. Art, unlike design, doesn’t have a job to do.” Designers have clients who want to stand out and a logo’s role is to communicate a company’s values or a product’s intended purpose. Yet standing out too much in the saturated marketplace can result in something that’s disastrously uncomfortable or equally forgettable, like the design for the 2012 London Olympics, which was criticized for resembling a Nazi symbol.

Design, as in advertising, can’t be too original — or it’s unlikely to pass client muster in the first place. Unless you happen to have a client who loves risk. So we remix things that already exist to create something hopefully new enough to be something different, but not too different.

Advertising Eating Everything

Back to the Chinese web novel. In the animation, there are these hilarious Cornetto ads, where scenes from the animation are recut to sell Cornetto ice cream in a hilarious way, with the actual voice actors saying new lines. It’s funny and terrible at the same time but it worked — although I don’t like ice cream or Cornetto, I went to the convenience store near my apartment and bought a goddamned Cornetto. It tasted like sugar and my personal failings.

Remixes and advertising can work. Whether it’s branded films, ads, or something new. Want to learn more? Contact us.

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