Relaxing one evening in front of the tv, the attorney for Carolco Pictures was startled by a Toyota auto commercial modeled – without permission – on the studio’s sci-fi action hit “Total Recall.”
Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi whipped up a spot using an Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike and a replica of the “memory implant” lab featured in the pic.
Carolco was not flattered by the imitation.
“I can’t talk about it,” said Marty Klar, a creative exec with Saatchi in Los Angeles. “Carolco has threatened us with litigation.”
Carolco licensing president Danny Simon was more forthcoming. “Corporations and their ad agencies call it the ‘top of mind’ approach to product awareness,” he said. “They’ve really come to understand the power of associating their product with a blockbuster film.
“Chances are we wouldn’t have given them permission,” said Simon.
Toyota is not alone in appropriating movie concepts as if they were in the public domain:
* A Burger King spot uses two diapered babies chatting in voiceover, a la “Look Who’s Talking.”
* A Nissan auto commercial features a protagonist and mise-enscene that are an obvious homage to the hero auto designer in Francis Coppola’s “Tucker.”
* A Minolta camera commercial unfolds with an eerie resemblance to “Field Of Dreams.”
According to Jack Trout, partner in the marketing consulting firm Trout & Ries, movie-inspired commercials “are using what the trade calls ‘borrowed interest'” to sell their products. “Actually, it’s plagiarism.”
Advertisers and their agencies say otherwise. “There’s absolutely no correlation between ‘Look Who’s Talking’ and our commercial,” said Burger King spokesman Michael Evans. A spokesman for Tri-Star Pictures, the film’s distributor, said the studio believed the ad did borrow the movie’s concept but took no action because “you can’t copyright the notion of talking babies.”
“Our commercial was not a takeoff on ‘Field Of Dreams,'” said Cathy Smith, a spokeswoman for the Campbell Mithun Esty agency, creator of the Minolta spot. The ad features a father and son playing catch in a field, where they’re joined by a baseball player in an old-fashioned uniform. Minolta “wanted something warm and emotional with a father and son,” she said. Lawrence Gordon, the film’s producer, declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Lucasfilm, producer of “Tucker,” said “our legal department is aware” of the Nissan commercial, “and looking into it,” but did not elaborate. Execs at the Chiat Day Mojo agency, creators of the spot, deferred comment to Nissan spokesman Jon Rinek, who did not return calls.
According to Rick Kurnit, an entertainment copyright law attorney for the Gotham firm of Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz, these commercials pose a “slippery” legal conundrum. On the one hand, “copyright doesn’t protect ideas and concepts.” On the other hand, he suggests that if “a reasonable viewer believes a commercial is a tie-in or otherwise authorized by the studio that owns the movie,” there may be grounds for action.
Steve Frankfurt, chairman of the Frankfurt Balkind Gips advertising agency, suggests that admakers are no less susceptible to the influence of movies than the targets of their commercials. “If an art director, writer or producer is sitting in front of a blank piece of paper building something for a client, he’s going to be influenced by something around him,” Frankfurt said. A popular movie can provide “a pertinent solution to a creative problem” even if “lifting from other sources is a far cry from originality.”
Many commercial directors are filmmakers manque, suggests Dick Karp, exec v. p./director of creative services for Grey Advertising. “At agencies you’ll hear all the time, ‘Let’s use ‘Godfather’-type lighting,'” he said. Karp noted that movies have long had a stylistic influence on commercials, but he disapproves of “blatant stealing with no credit given.”