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Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery?

Published: 18/12/2015 | AUTHOR: Tom Hunter

parody lynx

The use of parody in advertising is nothing new. Advertisers have long been using the comedic device, with examples dating back as early as the 1960s. Whether it’s used to imitate, mock or comment on an original genre, format or style, a well-executed parody can be a highly effective way to get people talking about a product or brand.


Put simply, a parody is ‘an imitation of a particular writer, artist or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.’

Parody definition

In the world of advertising, a parody enables brands to humorously associate themselves with a pre-existing and well-known advert or genre, essentially piggybacking on the success and/or ubiquity of the original. Notable examples include Specsavers’ ‘The Specs Effect’ advert, a parody of the famous Lynx ad, and Ikea’s ‘bookbook’ – which was an undeniable stroke of genius.

Until recently, advertisers have had to tread extremely carefully when dabbling with parody, being careful to avoid breaching strict copyright laws. However, a recent change to UK legislation has brought with it new opportunities to reference existing material for comic effect.


Under previous rules, the risk of being sued for breach of copyright when referencing clips of TV, film and music without consent was enough of a deterrent for most. But from 1st October 2014, the European Copyright Directive now excuses the use of material, providing it is fair and does not compete with the original version – with owners of copyrighted works only having the right to challenge if a parody conveys a discriminatory message.

“The only, and essential, characteristics of parody are, on the one hand, to evoke an existing work while being noticeably different from it and, on the other, to constitute an expression of humour or mockery,” the EU rules state.

“If a parody conveys a discriminatory message, the holders of the rights to the work parodied have, in principle, a legitimate interest in ensuring that their work is not associated with such a message.”

Aldi’s recent parody of John Lewis’ astronomically popular Christmas ad is a great example of a brand testing the limits of the revised legislation. Despite being a blatant copy of a small section of the John Lewis ad, Aldi managed to avoid hot water by taking advantage of the new rules – which allow ‘fair dealing’ with a work for the purposes of parody.

Aldi appears to have come out unscathed, with a John Lewis spokesperson claiming the retailer was ‘flattered.’ But this isn’t to say that advertisers now have the green light to start lampooning their competitors. Despite Aldi appearing to have escaped the clutches of John Lewis’ lawyers, it must be noted that the legislation is still somewhat vague, with plenty of scope for contention.

Having seen Aldi take on John Lewis – and ‘win’ – it’ll be interesting to see whether this spurs on other advertisers to exploit the new rules and pluck up the courage to parody other adverts or brands. For Aldi at least, the gamble appears to have paid off, with the spoof having been watched 7,000 times in the 14 hours after it was uploaded. Not a dent in the 5.9 million views that the John Lewis ad amassed within 24 hours of upload, but certainly food for thought…

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