In the 1980s Saatchi & Saatchi was renowned for its creativity and skilful application of advertising techniques in political campaigning in the UK. The “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign designed by the agency earned widespread acclaim in ad industry circles for helping Margaret Thatcher to victory in the general election of 1979, for instance.
But last week M&C Saatchi, an offshoot of the iconic British advertising firm, found itself mired by a costly blunder in an internet campaign in China. Worse, the mistake came just a day after it had agreed to a $390 million takeover bid from Next Fifteen, assuring investors that a merger with its London-listed rival would “establish a truly global platform in the digital marketing and consulting sectors”.
The blunder came after M&C Saatchi unveiled a new ad for Audi. In a beautifully shot two-minute commercial, which doesn’t mention the German car brand by name once, superstar singer-actor Andy Lau, delivers a poetic monologue about Xiaoman (小满) – the eighth of the 24 solar terms of China’s lunisolar calendar – from the back seat of an Audi as it weaves through a lush green landscape.“Xiaoman [which translates into ‘small satisfaction’] represents an attitude towards life, that on the road to the pursuit of perfection we don’t expect everything to be perfect, ” he explains.
The commercial quickly became the top trending topic online, with many netizens gushing about how tastefully it had been produced. Within a few hours, the new ad had received five million ‘likes’ on Lau’s official Douyin video channel and it was widely circulated across other social media platforms.
“The whole thing feels like it’s an artistic display of the pastoral landscape. The integration of copywriting and video only helps to elevate the brand’s quiet image of luxury,” Blue Whale Media applauded.
But almost as quickly as the commercial had won fans, it began to trend on the internet for different reasons. That same evening, a vlogger who goes by the name of Beida Mange claimed that Lau’s entire monologue was ripped off from one of his original works from 2018, which he had turned into a short video on Douyin three years later.
In the seven-minute critique, Beida Mange provided a detailed comparison of the Audi ad with his original 2021 post.
“I’ve been plagiarised many times before, but I’ve never seen this kind [of video campaign]… in which ads are embedded from beginning to end… and copy [my] content word for word,” said the vlogger, who has more than three million fans on his Douyin account.
The revelation turned the Audi campaign into an even hotter topic, albeit for the wrong reasons. On Sunday “Audi, Andy Lau” was trending massively on Sina Weibo, where it generated nearly 100 million views by midday.
“The copywriter didn’t even try to ‘embellish’ the original work. He simply copied the entire text word for word. It is rare to see such shamelessness in broad daylight,” Phoenix Weekly thundered.
Even the People’s Daily felt the need to comment, pointing out in an online article that copyright infringement like this was hardly a careless mistake but the result of deep-rooted problems in the ad industry.
“The incident should not end with an apology, but it should also become an opportunity for industry reflection on how to build an effective mechanism to prevent this kind of event,” the newspaper wrote.
Audi promptly deleted the commercial on its social media page. Lau also took the video down from Douyin and issued an apology through his fan club website.
“I have 100% respect for original work,” he wrote.
The German carmaker then went onto the front foot, apologising to both the Hong Kong star and Beida Mange about the plagiarism. It put the blame squarely on the ad agency M&C Saatchi, saying that it had demanded that the agency respond to accusations of copyright infringement as soon as possible.
Under enormous pressure, M&C Saatchi then responded. “We directly used the content of Douyin vlogger Beida Mange’s video about Xiaoman without communicating with the copyright owner,” it wrote in a social media post. “We apologise for bringing inconvenience and distress to Andy Lau, Beida Mange and Audi, and promise to do our best to make up for the loss to the original author.”
After the initial controversy was starting to die down, there were further accusations that other carmakers had committed similar offences in some of their own marketing efforts. For instance, a campaign from BMW that came out in 2021 bears striking resemblance to a music video from the English singer SOHN from 2017.
The problem, says Entertainment Unicorn, is that ad agencies in China often outsource parts of the creative effort to third parties in a bid to cut costs. Although copywriting should have been at the core of the Audi ad campaign, copywriters are often marginalised in the production process.
Still, Phoenix Weekly reckons that the upside to the furore is that it shines a light on the growing importance of respecting intellectual property rights in China. Meanwhile, Beida Mang announced on Wednesday that he had now authorised the use of his work by Audi. “Of course I will not charge for it,” he said. “I am not out for commercial gain. I hope this incident will make people put more value on original content.”
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