Grey’s new Brother ad raises familiar debate

Last week Grey launched its latest work for Brother, an online film in which scanners, printers, hard drives and other bits of office machinery act as an orchestra playing Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ – in similar fashion to the scanners, printers and hard drives which played Radiohead track Nude in James Houston’s brilliant degree show film back in 2008…

Last week Grey launched its latest work for Brother, an online film in which scanners, printers, hard drives and other bits of office machinery act as an orchestra playing Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ – in similar fashion to the scanners, printers and hard drives which played Radiohead track Nude in James Houston’s brilliant degree show film back in 2008…



Houston had responded to a Radiohead competition and ‘remixed’ the track Nude, playing all the component parts through an Epson LX-81 dot matrix printer, an HP Scanjet 3c and an array of hard drives. The resulting piece sparked a slew of copycat films recreating perhaps more well known tracks in similar fashion:

A Grey spokesperson originally told CR that Houston had not been contacted regarding the online film but that they “were aware of him and his work on the Radiohead video”. The Grey spokesperson cited other works on YouTube (the creators of which all openly credit Houston’s Radiohead video as their inspiration, incidentally) and said that: “Essentially, our inspiration came from what you’d class as ‘amateur’ attempts, but we wanted to up the scale and scope considerably – hence the orchestra. A load of these videos are really popular online and obviously have a bit of a cult following, so we knew people were interested in this as an art form. We wanted to take it to the next level. As far as we’re aware, nothing has been done on this scale before and it’s the first time the technique has been used in advertising or by a brand. We also felt, clearly, that it was the perfect fit for Brother.”

UPDATE: Grey have just been in touch to tell us that they were mistaken when stating that Houston had not been contacted re making the ad. The agency say they had first tried to contact Houston regarding the project via his YouTube account but say they didn’t hear back. However, Houston was subsequently asked to pitch on it via production company B-Reel, one of three production companies pitching on the project. Houston has recently Tweeted that as part of the pitch he supplied the agency with an outline and a shopping list of parts that they would need to make the ad. CR has contacted Houston and will update the story when we hear from him.

Further update: Brother’s European marketing and communications manager Antony Peart has added this statement in the comments under the ad on YouTube: “Brother is a business that operates to high ethical principles and we are therefore concerned to read some of the views expressed here. This film is part of a campaign that we commissioned from an external advertising agency. We have asked them to investigate the points being raised and to reassure us about the creative process behind it.”

Grey posted a making-of film on YouTube yesterday in which they shed some light on the technical challenges involved in creating what is nonetheless a really well-made commercial:


And so we are back into the same debate that CR’s Eliza Williams summed up so well in her feature entitled The YouTube Dilemma which we published in 2009.

Without rehearsing all the arguments that Eliza covered in her original piece, we do have sympathy with both sides of this old but persistent debate. Grey argue that they were taking a pre-existing and widespread technique (which, in terms of making machines ‘sing’ pre-dates even Houston’s film) onto a new level of sophistication and execution in a different context. In so doing they were acting just like many other ‘creatives’ –  from bands, to photographers, to film directors and artists. Recontextualising, appropriation – it’s the lifeblood of much of our culture. Where would fashion be without plundering the past? Or music?

Advertising in particular has always acted as a magpie, picking up references, concepts and ideas from the wider visual culture. The famous Silk Cut posters of the 80s were inspired by the cut canvas works of Lucio Fontana that Charles Saatchi had in his collection, the 1982 Steve Martin fllm Dead Men Dont Wear Plaid was directly referenced by GGT’s Holsten Pils campaign two years later etc etc etc

But, partly because it employs those references for commercial ends, advertising attracts more criticism for doing so than others engaged in similar activity. There is a double standard at work here. Ad agencies get pilloried for ‘ripping off’ filmmakers while designers who ‘reference’ art in, say, record sleeves, are lauded for their clever use of quotation. But it’s also about the way in which this is done. What infuriates many is the sense that agencies too often neglect to acknowledge sources and too readily claim credit for themselves solely as the originators of an idea or concept. And in many cases, little or nothing is added to the original – it’s just plain copying.

In her original piece, Eliza gave several examples of the ways in which agencies have learned to show more sensitivity and awareness – either acknowledging the source of a concept or technique or involving the originator in their project. This is not without its problems. There will be legal worries about naming ‘inspirations’ specifically and then there is the problem of who to name – was that YouTube video really the first time the idea had been done, or was it merely the latest in a long line of similar ideas stretching back years? These issues notwithstanding, taking their responsibilities seriously and acting like good citizens of the creative world, as many have started to do, surely has to be the way forward for advertising agencies.


Director Chris Cairns
Production company Partizan Darkroom
Producer Bonnie Anthony
Programmers Neil Mendoza, Mark Bereza
Electronic gurus Justin Pentecost, Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith
Agency Grey London
ECD Nils Leonard
Creative director Nick Rowland
Art directors Sam Haynes, Lee Trott
Agency producer Tom Pearce
Post Time Based Arts
Colourist George Kyriacou @ MPC
DOP Denzil Armour Brown
Editing company Trim Editing
Editor Ross Hallard
Music Will Cohen @ Factory Music



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