Charles Saatchi's first professional success seems a touch sordid now. In a rare interview with The Guardian to publicise his forthcoming book, My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic, the advertising guru turned art collector talks of the first advertisement he ever came up with. Except "came up with" isn't true. The teenage Saatchi nicked it instead. Charged with developing an idea for a poultry farm, he idly leafed through two magazines, Farmer and Stock-Breeder and Poultry World, picked a few plum words and jumbled them all together with a headline. Says the defendant: "I think I stole it from an old American advertisement - and produced 'Ask the man who owns them' as a testimonial campaign featuring beaming Thornber farmers. The client bought it."
Well. There you have it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. One of the great admen has built his reputation by being a copycat. Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising agency that Saatchi subsequently created in 1970 with his brother, Maurice, was responsible for some of the most memorable advertisements of the 20th century. They turned British Airways into "the world's favourite airline"; ahead of the 1979 general election in Britain, they famously told voters "Labour isn't working" and illustrated the slogan with a snaking queue of unemployed bodies. People said afterwards that it won the election for the Conservatives.
But now we ask, are these stolen ideas too? Concocted following a long lunch and a quick flick through a couple of inflight magazines or political pamphlets? We, the gullible public, deserve to know. One wonders whether Saatchi's whole career has been run along an Emperor's New Clothes basis. Whether selling recycled slogans or bits of decaying animals as art, he seems to have amassed an admirable fortune by flogging a service to people who know no better.
Stop. Wait. Let's hold on for the briefest of seconds. Surely we knew about the shadiness of admen already? Just look to the soaring success of Mad Men, the AMC series set in a 1950s and 1960s advertising agency that has just started its third season in the US. Noble heroes there are in short supply. The ad executives are chain-smoking, womanising brutes. The first clue about their collective moral compass comes early, in the pilot episode, when Don Draper comes up with a pitch to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes by putting a spin on cancer.
So let's halt the finger-wagging over Saatchi's admission. After all, his is hardly up there with the multi-million-dollar Levi's or Volkswagen adverts of this world. It was for a poultry farm. Somewhere in the UAE, we clearly have our very own Charles Saatchi or Don Draper tucked away. Look at the slogans that dot the motorway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Some wryly amusing ("You're a capitalist, capitalise."), some slightly gag-inducing ("Get a trophy life"). They're pithy slogans that could have come straight from the offices of Saatchi & Saatchi, but, again, wordplay is hardly a new concept in advertising.
There is a French website dedicated to rooting out copycat ideas in campaigns the world over (www.joelapompe.net). It claims to be the world's first such site, and has been running for 10 years. There, you'll find a 2004 Babybel advert with an uncanny resemblance to that famous American "Got milk?" campaign. A Saab image from 1999, using one of its models as a hammer, appears to have closely inspired subsequent adverts from Renault, Kia, Lamborghini and Land Rover. A Softee toilet roll ad, showing a roll unfurled as an escape rope from a prison window ("double-ply strength"), is mirrored almost exactly in another brand's campaign several years later.
Stealing or borrowing? Well, as any first-year humanities student (and Charles Saatchi himself) could probably tell you, there's no such thing as an original idea anyway.