In a sprawling city blanketed in winter for half the year, riding the bus is far from a glamorous endeavour.
The Edmonton Transit System tried to improve that image recently with a bit of Hollywood sheen. In May, it launched an online video entitled Cool Bus, with the kind of sonorousness usually reserved for movie trailers that begin with the words, "In a world." Scenes of gleeful transit riders enjoying transit amenities played out in dramatic slow motion. The narrator touted the "luxurious seats," and added that "the driver is cool" and the bus is "street." The video has attracted more than 600,000 views so far between YouTube and Facebook. Those are modest numbers for a big advertiser, but for a regional transit system, it's a blockbuster.
The only problem? The tongue-in-cheek video was nearly identical to another ad campaign, for Midttrafik (a regional public transit system in Denmark), down to the slow-mo, the music and the lines above that were taken verbatim from the Danish version. That award-winning campaign launched in 2012.
Last week, the ETS began promoting the video again, but it has received some negative feedback, including accusations of plagiarism.
"There's no hiding the similarities," said ETS spokesperson Jennifer Laraway. "We saw something we thought was a really strong campaign – it's garnered a lot of online attention, and that is fully to their credit. We didn't expect it to take off as much as it has here. But we want to make sure that credit stays where it's due."
While she said there have been positive comments too, the ETS has been in a bit of damage control, responding to comments on Facebook and YouTube trying to be transparent about their inspiration. Since May, the ETS has given a nod to the Danish campaign in media interviews. The credit is sometimes muddy, though: there is no source cited within the video itself. Ms. Laraway said the ETS has reached out to the transit company in Denmark to advise them that they want to ensure that proper credit is given.
The creators of the Midttrafik video, M2 Films, did not respond to requests for comment. Vice president Ronni Madson told Adweek this week that his team was surprised when they saw Edmonton's video, but that they "are trying just to be humbly flattered."
This is far from the first story of its kind. The advertising world is full of echoes.
Sometimes the similarities are what appears to be an innocent coincidence. In March, three different ad agencies had ideas for campaigns based on a recurring joke on Jimmy Kimmel's late night show, apparently independent of each other.
But in other cases, agencies could be accused of taking that sincerest form of flattery a little too far.
In May 2011, for example, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Renault SA both launched ads for their electric cars, based on the concept of how strange the world would be if everything ran on gas. Both commercials showed very similar images of everyday products such as hairdryers and computers belching exhaust when they are turned on. The two automakers have a strategic partnership, but it does not usually extend to their advertising. What's more, both of those ads appeared to have borrowed the same concept from an even earlier video, created by German film students in 2010. That school project was a proposed ad for Mitsubishi's i-MiEV electric car, but does not appear to ever have been used by the company.
In January, McDonald's Corp. launched a colourful animated ad featuring classic enemies – a postman and a dog, a dragon and a knight, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner are just a few examples – finding common ground while sharing food. The style of the animation, and of the upbeat pop music track that accompanied it, was similar to an Oreo campaign that began in 2013. That ad wondered whether villains such as the big bad wolf and a vampire might have been kinder to their fictional rivals if they'd eaten more cookies.
Sometimes, advertisers copy each other on purpose: In 2009, Rogers Communications Inc. launched an ad featuring a couch, one half of which was Rogers red, the other half blue to represent rival Bell Canada. The point was to show cost savings for similar services. BCE Inc. responded by copying the campaign. In its version, the blue side of the couch was more spacious, implying better service. In an interview with The Globe at the time, Rick Seifeddine, senior vice-president of branding at Bell, described the response as marketing jiu-jitsu.
Advertising has also drawn ideas from the art world – reflecting both popular and highbrow culture is part of what can keep these messages relevant. But some ads have edged a little too close to their sources of inspiration, and landed them in hot water.
In 2003, Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss said in a letter to ad agency Wieden+Kennedy that they believed its Honda commercial was too similar to their award-winning 1987 short film Der Lauf Der Dinge (The Way Things Go). The commercial, Cog, showed a Rube Goldberg machine composed of car parts. The film also used industrial materials, including car parts, in a similar way.
"Of course we didn't invent the chain reaction and Cog is obviously a different thing. But we did make a film the creatives of the Honda ad have obviously seen," Mr. Fischli told Creative Review magazine at the time. "We feel we should have been consulted about the making of this ad." W+K creative Tony Davidson responded in the magazine, saying, "advertising references culture and always has done. Part of our job is to be aware of what is going on in society. There is a difference between copying and being inspired by."
In 2010, AT&T Inc. added a disclaimer to an ad specifying that "the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude have no direct or indirect affiliation or involvement with AT&T." The ad, Rethink Possible, showed monuments draped in orange fabric to represent the telecom giant's service coverage. The company was criticized for the concept, which appeared to mimic the work of the artist couple famous for such projects as creating an orange curtain between mountains in Colorado; wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris in gold-coloured fabric; and an installation called The Gates, which used orange panels to create a "golden river" running through Central Park in New York.
The inspiration for advertising music is also sometimes in question, particularly as ads have moved away from using jingles and toward an indie music sound. Last year, the record label Young Turks complained that an ad for Hugo Boss used a song that seemed to rip off one of its bands' songs, Intro HQ by the xx. In a tweet, the label called the song used in the ad "a poorly disguised fake."
Advertising Standards Canada, the industry's self-regulatory body here, specifies in its code of standards that "No advertiser shall imitate the copy, slogans or illustrations of another advertiser in such a manner as to mislead the consumer."
"The key to that clause is that the imitation must be done in a manner that misleads the consumer," said vice-president of standards, Janet Feasby. "I don't think that is the case here," she said of Edmonton's Cool Bus video, "especially if they acknowledge the Danish commercial."
The ETS is planning to continue producing material for social media, particularly as it tries to reach younger commuters. But it may change its approach in the future.
"There are valuable lessons learned here," Ms. Laraway said. "If we do something like this again, we could show that cross-section a bit better, so it's really obvious that we're leveraging a success that's already out there, as opposed to branding it as our own."