Thirst can be a powerful urge, but who knew it could cause sleepwalking? That's what millions of viewers learned a couple of weeks ago when Coca-Cola aired a new 60-second TV commercial of a somnambulistic man making his way across an African landscape, blithely unaware as he comes inches from being attacked by a leopard, crushed by a herd of elephants, munched by a hippo and killed by a swarm of poisonous snakes, all on his way to a frosty bottle of Coke awaiting him in a fridge.
Israelis already knew about the power of thirst, because eight years ago, they'd seen a strikingly similar 45-second commercial for Yotvata chocolate milk: A man rises from bed in the dead of night and sleepwalks around town without successfully finding a bottle for sale - at which point he wakes in horror and goes to his fridge, where he finds a cold Yotvata that slakes his thirst.
Both ads were set to the trance-like march of Ravel's Bolero.
Less than a day after the Coke effort aired during the Super Bowl, someone posted a side-by-side comparison of the two commercials on YouTube, edited down to 23 seconds, which made it seem as if they were practically exact copies.
Asked about the similarities, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the company and its agency were unaware of the Yotvata ad before the flap.
"While the two share a few common elements, any similarities are coincidental and unintended," she wrote, adding that Coke's relationship with Wieden + Kennedy, the Portland agency behind Sleepwalkers, was unchanged.
But sitting in his London office the other day, Matt Beaumont chuckled at the story. "We used to make a joke, a long time ago, before the Internet and before everything became so globalized: There's a rule for stealing ideas, which was, 'five years or 5,000 miles,'" he said. "If it was at least five years old, or done at least 5,000 miles away, you could steal it. That was a kind of running gag back in the '90s. But then the Internet came along and we can see what they're doing in Africa now."
And vice versa. "It's a different world now, and it's much harder not to get caught."
This is the point in the story in which life imitates art because Mr. Beaumont, who is a creative director at M&C Saatchi, is also a part-time novelist. His first novel, an effervescent and well-received effort titled e, set in a London ad agency, revolved around the tale of a desperate creative director who steals a concept from the portfolio of a pair of young job seekers and turns it into a pitch. The prospective client? Coke.
Though perhaps that was more like art imitating life, for in his many years in the business, Mr. Beaumont has witnessed theft many times. He once saw an idea for Speedo in a student portfolio that showed up a short time later in a Speedo campaign, with no recompense to the students.
When he was working in Hong Kong in the late '80s, he said, a British art director newly arrived from the U.K. came calling with a reel that happened to include a TV commercial that Mr. Beaumont had done back in London only a couple of years before. Indeed, it had won an award at Cannes.
Theft like that is naked and obvious. Far more common these days are instances of what appear to be direct inspiration, often pulled from the Internet. In that respect, advertising has caught the same virus as numerous other forms of media that swim in the same pool of popular culture, where information may want to be free but its creators want at least to be credited.
In the past week, two New York-based reporters - one at the New York Times, one at the Daily Beast website - have left their positions after being caught copying work from other outlets. In both cases, the reporters defended themselves by saying their copying was accidental, the result of compiling large swaths of research material in a single file without fully tracking the sources.
"Everyone's got a computer on their desks now," Mr. Beaumont said. "In the old days, we'd be staring at blank walls or a blank pad trying to think of ideas, or possibly going to a bookshop and looking at pictures, or possibly going to a cinema. When you're seeking inspiration now, you can just go onto YouTube or the Web or people's blogs, and take from them - or be inspired, if you want to call it that, or steal, if you want to call it that. That's what creatives do, a lot of the time now."
Agencies openly use sites such as Flickr, with its millions of amateur photographs, to prepare mock-up presentations. Sometimes, the mood or execution in a borrowed photograph is so appropriate for a particular pitch, it can be hard to not simply order up a new version that is essentially a direct copy.
"There's a thousand websites that will show you all the [advertising]work in the world, which we're all obliged to keep up with," says Richard Bingham, a professor of creative advertising at Humber College's school of media studies. "How do you stay current without subliminally stealing ideas? This is a real problem."
Last fall, a striking image showed up in bus shelters in downtown Toronto: a picture of a hearse, the back window adorned with the familiar "Baby on Board" yellow diamond. Developed by the agency Juniper Park, the poster for the Child Safety Seat Coalition of Toronto included the copy line: "80% of child seats are installed incorrectly."
When it showed up on the website AdsOfTheWorld.com earlier this month, however, one commenter noted it bore an uncanny similarity to another effort done by the Edmonton-based agency Calder Bateman for the Alberta Occupant Restraint Program, which had won an award last year from the Advertising Club of Edmonton.
In an e-mail, Juniper Park's president, Jill Nykoliation, said: "Our team developed our concept in spring, 2008. Similar ideas being created around the world at a similar time unfortunately happens time to time."
"There is definitely a collective consciousness," Prof. Bingham said. "Maybe we have to let go of this idea of copycat." Ownership, he said, is much harder to pin down.
So, just as music has been transformed over the past couple of decades through the practice of sampling, and a whole culture of mash-ups has been made possible through technology, advertising seems to be headed toward a future in which original ideas themselves may not be as important as how those ideas are put together.
"Music is probably the metaphor we have to work with now," Prof. Bingham said. "It's going to be a lot of mash-ups."