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Imitation Not Always Flattering in Advertising

Dick Fried says he feels as if his pockets have been picked.

For more than a year, his Los Angeles advertising agency, Gumpertz/Bentley/Fried, has been running a television ad campaign for the contemporary furniture chain, Stor. The ads have all featured comedian Merle Kessler, who tells viewers why they should shop at Stor.

Late last year, Fried says, his agency received a call from the Los Angeles office of the ad firm J. Walter Thompson. The caller from Thompson said his agency liked Kessler and wanted to know how to get in touch with him. This, of course, is a very common thing in the ad business, and Fried’s agency passed along the phone number for Kessler’s agent.

But the outcome of that phone call has Fried fuming: similar ads by the two agencies.

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In one of Fried’s commercials for the Stor chain, Kessler cracks a bunch of one-liners while standing in front of a picture screen that shows various slides of Stor locations. And in a new commercial that Thompson has just created for Del Taco/Naugles, Kessler also cracks a bunch of one-liners while standing in front of a similar video screen that shows the Mexican fast-food chain’s latest offerings.

“I suppose it could be a coincidence,” Fried said, “but the delivery and setting are almost identical. There’s little question that they ripped us off.”

For its part, Thompson denies that the ad mimics Fried’s. “We’re not in the business of ripping off other people’s ads,” said Michael Arkin, vice president of the agency, which also creates ads for Vons, Baskin-Robbins and the Los Angeles Times. “It’s purely coincidental. This kind of thing happens all the time in this business.”

Indeed, many ad executives say that their agencies have also been accused of pirating ideas from advertisements that they’d never even seen before. “Unless its an exact duplicate,” points out Harry Paster, executive vice president at the New York-based American Assn. of Advertising Agencies, “how do you know for certain that somebody didn’t just have the same idea?”

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But several Los Angeles area ad executives insist that some of their advertising concepts have been knowingly borrowed by other agencies.

Take the current popular series of Oldsmobile commercials. These ads, created by the Chicago ad firm Leo Burnett, feature celebrities and their children driving Oldsmobiles. In one commercial, astronaut M. Scott Carpenter and his son are riding in an Oldsmobile, while comparing it to a rocket ship. As the commercial ends, the picture on the screen turns sideways and the car blasts off like a rocket.

“That was a direct steal from us,” said Larry Postaer, executive vice president and creative director at the Los Angeles ad firm Rubin Postaer & Associates. Five years ago, his firm created an ad for American Honda that ended the same way--with the picture turning sideways while the car blasted off like a rocket. Said Postaer, “the rip-off was so obvious that it was almost a compliment.”

But executives at Leo Burnett deny that they borrowed the concept from anyone. Richard Fizdale, the agency’s president and chief creative officer, said he wasn’t even familiar with the Honda commercial.

Meanwhile, executives say the style of ads created by Venice ad firm Chiat/Day are among the most mimicked in the business. The look of its “real life” Nike campaign of the early 1980s has been copied by numerous advertisers.

And it was shortly after the agency placed comedienne Roseanne Barr in an offbeat Pizza Hut commercial that she began to appear in ads for the Giant stores, owned by Ralphs Grocery. “We saw the Roseanne Barr Pizza Hut campaign and decided there was a better way to use her,” said Nancy Shalek, president of the Shalek Agency, the Los Angeles ad firm that created the campaign. “It’s always scary using a spokesperson that someone else has used. If you don’t do it better, you’re dirt.” What’s more, Shalek said, “ultimately, we think the ‘Roseanne’ television show was based on our commercials.”

The creators of several other major ad campaigns say their creations have been much mimicked, too. Following the “Liar” campaign for Isuzu, a flood of commercials with blatant lies and exaggerations began to appear on television. “I’ve seen numerous Liar-inspired commercials,” said Peter Stranger, president of the Los Angeles office of the ad firm that created the campaign, Della Femina, McNamee WCRS. “But at least no one has done it in a serious way.”

And shortly after the low-cost lodging chain Motel 6 began to run its light-hearted radio ad campaign with spokesman Tom Bodett, a handful of motel chains adopted a similar style. Red Roof Inns hired Martin Mull and Econo Lodges of America snatched Tim Conway. Most recently, Holiday Inn has hired “Night Court” star John Larroquette as a pitchman in its TV commercials.

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“We don’t find it upsetting at all,” said Hugh Thrasher, executive vice president of marketing at Motel 6. “We think these ads just remind people of the originality of our concept.”

Of course, not all executives take it so good naturedly when their ideas are lifted. “When it happens here, I’ll usually fire off a letter to my counterpart at the other agency,” said adman Postaer. “Of course, the damage is already done by then.”

Shalek looks at the issue philosophically. “If you haven’t been ripped off,” she said, “you’re really in trouble.”

Looking for a Few Good Packaged Goods

When the fast-food chain Jack-in-the-Box blew up its clown in a TV commercial several years ago, Daniel Michel was the creative director at the agency that made the offbeat ad.

Last week, Michel was named general manager of the Los Angeles office of Tracy-Locke, which creates ads for $100-million client Taco Bell.

But his agency won’t be blowing up the bell at Taco Bell. After all, the Mexican fast-food chain is one of the fastest growing in the country.

But Tracy-Locke’s Los Angeles office has not grown fast. And one of Michel’s first assignments at Tracy-Locke is to find more clients. After all, the Los Angeles office relies almost exclusively on Taco Bell for its business. And earlier this month, Taco Bell said it was searching for another agency to create ads for a new Mexican-style restaurant chain that it plans to launch on a limited basis later this year.

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Michel, who was most recently president of marketing at Columbia Pictures, said he will look for packaged-goods clients. And he also hopes to expand more of the agency’s business into the Pacific Rim. As for the Los Angeles market, said the 42-year-old Michel, “when I moved out here 15 years ago, Los Angeles was not at the leading edge of advertising. Now, some of the most creative advertising anywhere is being done here.”

Shuttle Hopes Riders Will Focus on Ads

When some air travelers have nothing else to do, they reach into their seat pockets and flip through the airline magazines. But what about when these same travelers take the shuttle van to the airport? Don’t they get bored then, too?

SuperShuttle International, the Los Angeles airport shuttle company, is trying to convince advertisers that they do. And as a proposed remedy, it has begun to promote--sell national advertising in--its year-old publication, SuperShuttle Focus.

Full-page, color ads in the free publication cost $2,906. The magazine is available in racks inside all SuperShuttle vans. Its 32-page April issue features ads from Federal Express, Chevron and Hyatt hotels. “If you advertise with an airline magazine, you’re only reaching the people who fly that airline,” said Tami J. Meier. “But if you advertise with us, you’re getting passengers from all the airlines.”

Forest Lawn Ads Aim at Latino Audience

Forest Lawn Memorial Parks, the cemetery chain that has become increasingly aggressive in its marketing, is about to begin advertising on Spanish-language television.

Last week, Forest Lawn--which has five Los Angeles area locations--selected North Hollywood-based Castellanos Latina Advertising to handle its $500,000 Latino ad business. The ad campaign, however, won’t focus so much on the cemetery as on the Museum of Mexican History that opened at Forest Lawn in 1967, said Julio Castellanos Sr., president of the agency. The ads will begin airing next month.

First Matchmaking, Now It’s Microwaves

Imagine helping to plot ad strategy for the Great Expectations video dating chain.

Well, as a former account executive at the Los Angeles ad firm Robert Elen & Associates, which handles advertising for Great Expectations, Robert Charney did just that. The strategy was to create an image for the dating service that would make it look like a place where people go because they’re too busy to line up their own dates--and not a place for people who simply can’t get a date.

That strategy worked. And now Charney has just established his own Sherman Oaks ad agency, Mosaic, where he plans to specialize in helping retail companies develop strong brand images. The agency opened with a single client--Associated Volume Buyers--a group of independent appliance retailers who try to compete with the big name chains by advertising as a group.

And similar to Great Expectations, Charney hopes to help build a strong image for the appliance group. Of course, there is one major difference. While Charney can personally make use of the appliance companies’ wares, that was not the case with Great Expectations. Said Charney, “My wife wouldn’t have liked that at all.”


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