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Lernert and Sander selfie at Design Indaba

Media Partnership / Design Indaba

Lernert and Sander name and shame the adverts copying their work, then forgive them

Dutch directors Lernert Engelberts and Sander Plug – better known as Lernert and Sander – took to the stage at this year’s Design Indaba with a characteristically bonkers presentation. Dressed as gospel singers in royal blue robes, the duo used the opportunity to tackle the often unspoken problem of stealing in the creative industry.

The pair consider themselves repeated victims of creative theft. Way back in 2007, they directed a film called Chocolate Bunny which showed the brutal destruction of a chocolate rabbit by various sadistic methods against a distinctive pastel-coloured backdrop and an eerie lullaby soundscape. In 2009, sunglasses company RayBan launched Never Hide, a campaign bearing what Lernert and Sander considered unacceptable visual similarities to their film of two years earlier.

Since then, Lernert and Sander feel they have seen countless ideas taken, diluted and abused by major brands without acknowledgement or consent. In an attempt to wash out the bitter taste in their mouths, the duo used the platform at Design Indaba to name and shame their imitators and to forgive them via email, the words of which were performed live on stage by a local all-female choir – to a standing ovation from the audience.

We caught up with the two creatives behind the scenes at Design Indaba to talk frankly about the industry-wide problem of plagiarising.

Why do you think creative people copy other creative people in 2017?

Lernert: Because it’s so easy.
Sander: I think the advertising industry doesn’t have a moral compass.
Lernert: Let’s cut them a little bit of slack. Maybe they don’t understand the difficulty of presenting great work in mood boards and forgetting that they get stuck with that. That’s something that I think we’re all together in – I think we need to rekindle that. Maybe when you present something as a moodboard…

People take it literally!

Lernert: People take it literally.
Sander: But it’s not like something you do once and you learn.The advertising agency has known it already for 30 years and is still doing it, so they don’t seem to learn.
Lernert: 20 years ago, you had to go to a copy machine to copy. Nowadays it’s so easy. Why is it happening? We haven’t really answered the question, but it is happening and we are experiencing it a lot.

When did you first notice that your work was being replicated?

Lernert: In 2009, we stumbled across the RayBan copy Never Hide of our 2007 film Chocolate Bunny. We could have done it, but we thought they didn’t contact us because we didn’t have an agent then. But we got an agent and it’s still happening.

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Lernert and Sander: Cubes

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Jaime Figueiredo for Expresso

And have you sent creatives or companies emails addressing the fact they were copying you?

Lernert: We only did it twice.
Sander: You don’t get replies. Why would someone start a communication line about why they copied our work? It’s only silence.
Lernert: There was one reaction. We tried to get a lawyer and find out what our rights our but it’s very difficult – every country is different. It’s quite blurry, and why are we ever going to win against a big corporation?
Sander: We’re trying to get out of the situation of finding it an issue.
Lernert: It’s about transforming our business into thinking that its a tribute and then it becomes a different kind of perspective.
Sander: For us, the style is just the non descriptive canvas to let an idea breathe, so if people copy us just for the sake of colour then it’s a bit lame.
Sander Sometimes, we get a call to ask us to do a piece of work like Chocolate Bunny. That was 10 years ago! So we say – we can send you the Pantone reference numbers if that’s what you want from us!
Lernert: It’s not like we think that we’re going to transform the industry, but we’d like to take copying and change it into something positive.
Sander: What I like about the reaction so far is that we spoke to some advertising agencies and the people that work there, and they feel something now as well, so they know what their industry is doing.

Do you feel like you’ve reached catharsis now you’ve made this presentation?

Sander: Maybe we need to find more rip-offs so we can make it into a library. If we want to do it one more – because we think about the reaction of the audience – we think that we could also do it in different spots.
Lernert: I think if we want to bring out the best in ourselves, we always have to find new ways to present ourselves. I think it’s important to feel when you present something. It’s important to have new angles.
Sander: But I think it’s nice to grow this library. We’re going to do a presentation for an advertising club. It could work really well because it’s the right group to talk to.