I’d love to hear some points of view on whether there is an unwritten, understood statute of limitations on advertising ideas and language. Of course, my orientation is taglines, but the question applies more broadly. Is it okay to re-use an idea, an image, a headline or tagline, after a certain amount of time has passed? After all these years in advertising, I have not been able to settle on a sound stance regarding this question. And that’s saying something, given my inclination to opine on most anything.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It may sound like a self-aggrandizing example, but hey, it’s my blog.
The MD Anderson Cancer Center has carried the tagline, Making Cancer History, for awhile now. I consider it a worthy play on words, meaning both “making cancer a thing of the past” and “developing history-making cancer treatments.”
Of course, it makes sense that I would consider it worthy, since, back in 1990 or 91, I wrote the same phrase as a headline for two-page newspaper spread ad showcasing The Ohio State University Hospitals’ comprehensive cancer care center.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not claiming to be the first to stumble on this idea. It may well have been used, maybe mutiple times, by other medical facilities prior to this. I have no idea. Just as the folks at MD Anderson, I’m sure, have no idea that their tagline was once a headline for The Ohio State University Hospitals.
But, even if they were aware of its prior use, does that mean this set of words is forever unavailable to others? Or is it reasonable to assume that, after, say a decade, any piece of language like this, a headline or tagline, becomes fair game. Or does it depend on the degree of its notoriety (celebrity?)? Is GE’s We Bring Good Things To Life carved in advertising granite, never to be used again, because of its iconic stature. Certainly, many other brands have latched onto very close variations on that line, switching out some other verb to replace “Bringing . . .”, or replacing “Good Things” with some other noun. Is that okay? Or is there a taint, a plagiaristic stigma, attached to any such tagline that exists today?
I’ve struggled with this topic—the whole question of the boundaries around intellectual property—off and on for decades. The only thing I’ve been able to conclude is that the answer is not obvious, it’s extremely gray and murky, and reasonable people may never be able to come to a consensus point of view on this topic.
I know you’re out there, a few of you at least, reading this. I’d sure like to hear what you think about this.