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Old Commercial Reworked to Push a Different Product

As the camera pans through a marble room, a statue of a flute player, carved from the same beige marble, sways in time to his own music. As if fulfilling King Midas’ dream, the flutist and the other statues in the room turn to gold, glittering in the light. Suddenly, a white ball appears and fills the screen with the familiar brush-stroke logo of The Wave, KTWV-FM (94.7).

What sets this commercial apart from the multitude of others on local TV outlets is not just its beautiful imagery, but the fact that it was made three years ago--to advertise a precious metal exchange in Malaysia. The original closing was “a dream of gold and a world of excellence from Benson & Hedges,” and gold icons of the characters in the ad could be purchased from the company.

Robert Abel and Associates created “Gold,” a set of three 30-second and one 60-second commercials, for the Benson & Hedges subsidiary in Malaysia in 1985, when the firm was seeking to expand into other areas of business.

The series featured state-of-the-art computer animation, but was never broadcast in the United States until Robert Michelson Inc., a New York agency that produces and syndicates television commercials advertising radio stations, bought the spots and altered the first one for the American market.

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“This is the first time we’ve bought the rights to a spot used to advertise another product somewhere else,” says Sue Sharf, vice president of Robert Michelson. “As the commercials don’t mention cigarettes, you’d never know they had been made for a tobacco company unless you saw them in Malaysia. We’ve secured the rights for broadcast in the U.S. and Canada (to advertise) ‘New Age’ stations.”

To prepare the commercial for American TV, technicians added the white ball with the KTWV logo, using a sophisticated, computer paint-box program. New Age composers Tim Wiseberg, David Benoit and Grant Geissman prepared a new score with synthesized flutes and guitars.

“We reworked the music and the ending and altered the timing slightly,” adds John Sebastian, the station’s program director.

“We’ve been looking for a commercial that depicted the concept of The Wave ever since we created it. When we saw the ‘Gold’ spots on a computer graphics demo reel, we thought, ‘Here’s the video representation of this sound,’ and asked Robert Michelson to look into procuring them.”

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Seeing the commercial came as a surprise to Kenny Mirman, who served as creative director/designer for the original series of ads.

“I’ve always wanted to see them on U.S. television because I think they’re beautiful films,” says Mirman. “My concern was that their integrity be maintained, and I was not happy with the way the original ending was removed to make room for the new logo. I’m also concerned that I wasn’t consulted at all. This kind of film really does have a beginning, a middle and an end, and you can’t change them without risking destroying them, although I don’t think they’ve done that.”

Mirman’s concern is understandable, as the flat, fuzzy ball that contains the Wave logo doesn’t match the realistic, three-dimensional world he designed, although Sebastian says the new ending took the spot “a quantum leap forward” and that reaction to it has been “tremendous.”

“Changing the ending and the music is just the tip of a much bigger legal iceberg,” says Bob Abel. “Everyone in the arts, from painters to architects, faces the same problem: the reselling of your work without your having any control over changes in it. I think there is at least a moral obligation on the part of the second client to consult the artist. There’s no clause in our contract to that effect because we never dreamed that anyone would resell a film to another client in another country.”

The same “Gold” spot begins airing in Phoenix next month, advertising another radio station; it may eventually be sold in markets across the country.

Although Sebastian says KTWV may buy the rest of the series if the first one gets “the results we’re anticipating,” the fate of the other ads remains uncertain, especially the 60-second “Carousel,” which features a puppet manipulated by Bruce Schwartz holding a carrousel of computer-generated animals. One-minute commercials are exceedingly rare because of the high cost of air time.

“We intend to utilize the entire series,” Scharf says. “We have no problem with a station purchasing ‘Carousel,’ but we will not edit it down to 30 seconds. We’re not trying to remake these commercials--the graphics are too amazing not to maintain their integrity.”

It’s also not clear whether using old commercials to sell new products will become a trend in TV advertising. Many European animated commercials show the product only at the end and could easily be adapted. Reediting would certainly be cheaper than doing new computer animation. Although Sharf declined to state the price for the rights to the series, it’s certain no radio station could afford to commission them from scratch. The four spots cost Benson and Hedges nearly $1.5 million.

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“I don’t see why this kind of reworking might not be done again, Sharf says. “Obviously, it would depend on who held the copyright and if the commercial was ever intended for use in the U.S. by the original producer. As cigarette companies are not allowed to advertise on TV in the United States, it wasn’t a problem in this case.”

“From a legal standpoint, this could be the opening of a huge issue,” maintains Abel, who says he is “investigating his legal rights.”

“If someone got hold of ‘Hawaiian Punch’ (an elaborate live action/computer commercial that has never aired), they could go in digitally and put something we consider dangerous in the kids’ hands and we’d have nothing to say about it,” he says. “If a famous play or poem or work of art were used to advertise smut or even a political campaign, there’d be a major lawsuit that would go up to the Supreme Court. The artist has very little say in what happens to his work, and I think it’s going to require legislation on the federal level--and on the level of the contracts we sign to produce these films.”


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