Archive Dive: C is for Cog

The 26/D&AD Archive Dive is a series of articles by 26 members celebrating the best work from the D&AD awards archives. Today, C is for Cog by Sue Evans

What to choose? Should I stir things up, court controversy? A lot of interesting work, agencies and clients begin with the letter C in the D&AD winners’ archive: Cukoo Land (The Economist); Cass Art Bag;; Channel 4; and Honda ad – Choir. But I’m interested in Honda’s earlier TV ad Cog, alongside another C-word: copyright.

Made in 2003 by Wieden+Kennedy to launch the seventh generation Honda Accord, Cog won three Yellow Pencils in the 2004 D&AD Awards. It was one of the most memorable ads of the year, breaking new ground in advertising as well as being technically brilliant.

In a film that runs for two minutes (long for a TV commercial) a cog knocks into a bigger cog to start a chain reaction, involving many other colliding car components that eventually activate an ignition key, the cue for a new Honda Accord to roll down the ramp of a trailer. The ad has none of the usual copy extolling product benefits and ends with a voiceover by author Garrison Keillor – “Isn’t it great when things just work?” It took 606 takes to arrive at the final sequence comprising an almost continuous tracking shot, made without computer-generated imagery. No wonder it was talked about!

However, there was a spanner in the works in the form of a film made in 1987 by Swiss conceptual artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. The artists’ film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) also sets up a series of chain reactions but using everyday objects, including tyres, buckets, balloons, string, a kettle and ladders, plus makeshift contraptions propelled along rails or rocketed into the air. Fischli and Weiss claimed Honda’s ad plagiarised their film and threatened to sue. The high cost associated with litigation and the murky nature of copyright law that protects expression over ideas meant in this instance one thing did not lead to another, and the case was not pursued. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate such an innovative ad was tarnished by the episode.

We shouldn’t forget that art borrows too. As well as Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, think Andy Warhol (Campbell’s Soup, Brillo) and Richard Prince (Marlboro Man). Except when artists borrow it’s called appropriation, and somehow legitimate.

Wieden+Kennedy didn’t deny The Way Things Go had been an influence. And their treatment is different when the films are compared. Ironically, the setting for Cog could be a minimalist gallery space, in contrast with the art film’s shabby warehouse interior. Cog shows precision engineering, form following function. In Fischli and Weiss’ film, we’re not sure what the function is, a chain of events is set in motion without an end in sight, except perhaps running out of film or going home for tea.

There’s something of the emperor’s new clothes about Fischli and Weiss, which I guess is the point. Not unreasonably, people in the creative industries are likely to take notice of their work. And if it inspires something else, what’s wrong with that? Homage or parody, maybe. Copying, never.

This article originally appeared on the D&AD website.

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