Casualties of coincidence

Casualties of coincidence
Adman James Hurman knows what it’s like to be branded a plagiarist—and why we're so quick to believe that a ‘fresh’ idea is actually a cheap rip-off. Why, then, do so many ideas emerge at the same time from different places?

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Adman knows what it’s like to be branded a plagiarist—and why we’re so quick to believe that a ‘fresh’ idea is actually a cheap rip-off. Why, then, do so many ideas emerge at the same time from different places?

As we sat with the producer, finalising details of the filming of Vodafone’s ‘Symphonia’ campaign, our account director handed me an iPhone to watch a YouTube clip he’d been sent.

We were well past the point of no return on what we were sure was an original idea—staging a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture using the text-alert sounds of a thousand mobile phones. So our discovery of an eerily similar film showing a performance of Jingle Bells using the ‘ding’ sounds of 49 microwaves was disconcerting.

We were innocent of any imitation, but the discovery reminded me of another Vodafone project several years earlier. We’d been in the final stages of post-production on the ‘Best Mates’ commercial when we discovered that we were not the only ones with the idea to substitute people’s mobile phones with miniature versions of the person they were calling. A French telco had, only weeks earlier, launched a virtually identical campaign.

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A Bug’s Life and Antz, released in 1998, are both computer-animated features with individualist ants in colonies under threat

“The Vodafone ‘Best Mates’ spot seems to be lifted directly from an Atlantic Telecom ad,” mused an anonymous commenter on an industry blog, a week or so after the 2006 campaign went to air. “Shame that the Best Mates ad is a rip,” replied another, ferrying our plagiarism from speculation to fact.

The realities of production timelines meant there was no way they could have copied our idea, nor vice versa, but we knew people would be unforgiving.

“Is there anything Lowe hasn’t copied yet?” heckled another. “I guess it must be really hard at Lowe to create new ideas,” said a fourth. “I can’t stomach the derivative work coming out of Lowe,” groused a fifth.

Being publicly convicted of a crime we hadn’t committed was exasperating. And it’s one of creativity’s most common perils.

The advertising industry’s conversations, whether on blogs or barstools, are awash with accusations of plagiarism. It isn’t unusual for one campaign to bear resemblance to another, and such resemblances tend to be gleefully exposed and unsympathetically trialled.

Copying someone else’s idea is creativity’s most detestable sin. It’s cheating. It’s scandalous. And in our highly competitive field, it’s just the thing we hope our contemporaries have been up to.

We suspect plagiarism frequently and enthusiastically. Is it simply a thirst for scandal? Or is there more to it?

While I wondered about the public castigation we were about to receive for the ‘Symphonia’ situation, I had a chance conversation with a road safety expert who told me we’re doomed to assume the worst in others.

Copying someone else’s idea is creativity’s most detestable sin. It’s cheating. It’s scandalous. And in our highly competitive field, it’s just what we hope our contemporaries have been up to

Our accusational behaviour, he told me, resembles a universal disorder that psychologists call attributional bias. In basic terms, we tend to attribute the negative actions of others to their attitudes or intentions, but we rationalise our own mistakes as being caused by external factors beyond our control. For example, when another driver stops suddenly we’re likely to decide he’s an inconsiderate asshole. Our own sudden stop, however, will be the result of a hidden street sign coming into view at the last moment—an honest and involuntary mistake.

Every creative person has, in his or her own repertoire, an idea or piece of work that’s turned out to resemble another. We know our own unoriginality was honest and involuntary: we were never exposed to the original idea, it was merely coincidence, our innocence is beyond question. Attributional bias, however, leads us to assume plagiaristic attitudes and intentions in others when their unoriginality is exposed.

It’s a common psychological dysfunction we share with road-rage felons—a general inability to empathise, to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to imagine that our peers could be casualties of the same kind of coincidence we’ve experienced ourselves.

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1998’s Ed TV and The Truman Show share an identical premise

As I came to terms with my newly realised mental inadequacy, I began to notice the level of scepticism with which we treat such coincidence.

We generally regard two people conjuring the same idea at the same time as highly suspicious. It’s not a believable scenario, like the driver stopping suddenly for an unseen road sign. Rather, it seems a thoroughly improbable occurrence. It may be conceivable that two different people could have similar ideas, but at exactly the same time? Despite even my own experiences, that still sounded unlikely.

So could our attributional bias be exacerbated by our disbelief in coincidence? Could it be that we jump to the conclusion of plagiarism simply because we believe that plagiarism is more likely than one idea had by two people at the same time?

One of the New Yorker essays that didn’t make it into Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What The Dog Saw, was handed to me in photocopied form earlier this year. Titled ‘In The Air: Who Says Big Ideas Are Rare?’, the paper touches on the work of William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, who in 1922 created a list of major ideas that had been simultaneously had by different scientists and inventors.

Frenchmen Charles Cros and Louis Ducos du Hauron both invented colour photography at the same time in the mid-19th century. In 1608, Hans Lippershey, Zacharias Janssen and Jacob Metius independently invented the telescope. The thermometer is claimed by at least six different men. And historians estimate the typewriter was created in the 18th century by separate inventors 52 times across Europe and America.

These occurrences of multiple discovery turn out to be anything but rare. Ogburn and Thomas found 148 major examples of such multiplicity. Evolution, so commonly attributed to Charles Darwin, was also discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace. Calculus was invented by both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The telegraph was pioneered simultaneously in 1837 by the Englishman Charles Wheatstone and the American Samuel Morse. Three engineers designed the jet engine independently between 1939 and 1941. Even Einstein’s renowned E=mc2 was also the work of Henri Poincare, Olinto De Pretto and Hendrik Lorentz.

In the 1960s, American sociologist Robert K Merton furthered the study of multiplicity, concluding that “the pages of the history of science record thousands of instances of similar discoveries having been made by scientists working independently of one another. Sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make anew a discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else had made years before.”

The title of Gladwell’s essay spoke to the theory that ideas, rather than being born in the minds of their creators, are in fact ‘in the air’, to be discovered by anybody looking in the right direction at that particular moment. The sentiment reflects the words of Hungarian mathematician Farkas Bolyai, who in the 19th century suggested that “when the time is ripe for certain things, these things appear in different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring”.

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Evolution, so commonly attributed to Charles Darwin, was also discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace

In 2003, Dan Futterman finished his screenplay Capote within weeks of fellow biographer Douglas McGrath submitting Infamous. The writers, completely unknown to each other, had chosen not only the same subject but exactly the same period of Truman Capote’s life. Wikipedia’s ‘List of films with similar themes and release dates’ records dozens of such examples: 1998’s The Truman Show and Ed TV share an identical premise, as do Deep Impact and Armageddon from the same year. Lambada was released on the same day in 1990 as The Forbidden Dance, also about the dance craze. Turner & Hooch and K9, both about a police officer getting a dog for a partner, were released simultaneously in 1989. The novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses was adapted into both Dangerous Liaisons in 1988 and Valmont in 1989. Just last year, Coco Avant Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky were independently released within weeks of each other.

When he introduced the idea of ‘steam engine time’, American writer Charles Fort also appeared to believe that ideas were ‘in the air’. Trying to explain the six or seven inventions of the steam engine within a three-month window, he said, “I guess it was just steam engine time.” That designation has since been given to those cases of a single idea appearing at once in several unconnected minds.

How fascinating a notion: that external conditions at specific times create an environment in which certain ideas become ‘likely’.

Of course, our creative minds respond to the world around us. It’s often said that new ideas arise through the crossing of existing ideas. So does it stand to reason that when two people attempting to solve a similar problem are exposed to similar ideas, it’s possible they’ll solve them in similar ways?

Was 2009 just ‘alert sound orchestra time’? Fast Company magazine, which profiled ‘Symphonia’, went on to catalogue the precursors to both our cellphone symphony and AKQA’s microwave orchestra. “It’s not actually all that original,” writes Cliff Kuang. “The idea of a distributed orchestra is at least as old as the mid-1990s, when the Flaming Lips once handed out dozens of cassette players among an audience, so they could ‘play’ various parts of a song. Since then, the idea keeps evolving. For example, the recent YouTube Symphony and the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra.”

Had those precursors propelled the ‘alert sound orchestra’ idea up into the air just as we and AKQA happened to be looking?

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Frenchmen Louis Ducos du Hauron and Charles Cros both invented colour photography. Above, The first known colour photograph by Louis Ducos du Hauron: a view of Agen with St Caprais cathedral, France, 1877

Whatever the case, the history of ideas insists that two people having the same idea at the same time is in fact wholly possible. And if anything, with an expanding ‘creative class’, all of whom feed from the same growing online sources of stimulus, it stands to reason that multiplicity may become increasingly probable as time passes.

So is it time then to move on from our accusations? To treat the casualties of coincidence with more compassion? Or are there in fact upsides to our intolerance?

Much has been hypothesised about the importance of originality to advertising’s effectiveness and, in a wider sense, to the success of creativity. New ideas, we’ve maintained, are more likely to stand out than recycled ones, giving them a greater chance of taking hold.

Most of those appeals have been based on nothing more than faith and common sense, but this decade past has given us some slightly more robust reasons to believe our own pleas.

In 2002, researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands explored the relationship between advertising originality and the attention paid to that advertising. They found that increased levels of originality created increased and more intense attention to the advertising and to the brand in those advertisements, and that greater originality also promoted increased recall of the advertising.

In 2000, the National University of Singapore tested advertisements varying from unoriginal to highly original, seeking to ascertain their persuasiveness in terms of driving purchase intent. The study found that purchase intent rose as the ‘unexpectedness’ of the ad increased, demonstrating that originality has a positive effect on persuasion.

Creating new ideas rather than borrowing existing ones isn’t simply a question of conduct; original ideas are more likely to produce a result for the client, who paid for them.

So has a kind of self-policing system evolved in our industry to protect the efficacy of our creative product? Perhaps our guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to originality keeps us not only honest, but more effective.

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In 1608, Hans Lippershey, Zacharias Janssen and Jacob Metius independently invented the telescope

In 2007, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to both the Frenchman Albert Fert and the German Peter Grünberg. In 1988, the press release explains, they’d “each independently discovered a totally new physical effect—Giant Magnetoresistance, the technology that is used to read data on hard disks. It is thanks to this technology that it has been possible to miniaturise hard disks so radically in recent years.”

Increasingly, the Nobel Prize recognises two or three scientists independently for the same discovery. The Nobel Foundation treats such multiplicity not with suspicion, but with worldly acceptance. Originality is science’s most fundamental tenet, and yet their community ultimately sets their suspicions aside.

So as we rightly defend originality as a fundamental tenet of all creativity, perhaps there’s something to be borrowed from Alfred Nobel’s legacy in acknowledging the likelihood of multiplicity, allowing for coincidence, and doing a little to lessen its casualties.