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Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

April 11, 2012

(Picture Credit – The TLS identifies a specific cover genre: The Backs of Women Looking Out over Water)

I recently read this article on the Guardian’s website about the rise of the copycat book covers.

With products I can understand that the packaging is a copycat – it’s hard not to see that when an expensive brand leader suddenly looks nearly identical to the cheaper own label version (if you want examples just look at John Frieda’s shampoo range and Asda’s own label, or Seven Seas Multibionta and Boots own label multivitamin).  They are trying to demonstrate that only the price is different between the products, and steal sales that way.

The article suggests that these copycat covers in books are using the same tactics – trying to pass themselves off as the same (or very similar) in the hope that people who’ve enjoyed the original will buy their product as well.

The problem is I wonder whether this is really copy-cat design for marketing, or if it’s more about genre conventions.  Sometimes subject matter dictates the sort of cover you can have – you can’t imagine a Vampire book with a bright and cheerful cover, or a chick-lit with something dark, mysterious and moody.  Even if the examples above have similar themes, they all feel very different.

Or maybe it is simply about what is fashionable at the time.  In much the same way that when fashion designers come up with similar designs they are ‘tapping into a Zeitgeist’ rather than copying each other.  How else do you explain similar hemlines and colour palettes?

It’s difficult – even in marketing – to draw the line.  Packaging is more clear-cut, but  Gemma has just written about how this can happen in ads – and it always looks bad for the second person to release their version; even if it would have been physically impossible for them to know about the first version, the second version will always look like it copied.

We say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but we don’t really mean it.  There’s always something a bit negative about ‘copying’. We’re criticising the creativity of whatever has come second.  I’m not really sure what my point here is, but I just feel that sometimes we’re too quick to accuse people of copying, when in fact they’re just tapping into something that is bigger than one person.  And surely in a world where we prize speed above all else – anything that helps shortcut to meaning is a good thing?

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