Saturday, September 15, 2012

Imitation Is...

There's an old saw that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Take the seminal Bruce Springsteen album "Born to Run." The cover features a bearded Boss leaning on the shoulders of Clarence Clemmons. Sesame Street's tribute, titled "Born to Add," featured Burt in the same pose leaning on the shoulder of their Big Man, a saxophone playing Cookie Monster. Or consider Weird Al Yankovic's homage to Michael Jackson's "Bad," which features a leather clad Al in the identical pose as the King of Pop.  The main title is rendered in the same red scribbled font, though his is "Even Worse."

In neither case would you accidentally pick up knockoff and think it's the original. That's because the purpose of these is to, depending on your point of view, parody or honor the original. More often, however, the intent of similar efforts is to build on the success of the former where an exact copy would bring the lawyers running. And so an extra beat is added here, some chrome there. It happens in almost every industry. The most talked about designs that strut down the runway at Fashion Week in Milan or Paris find an "inspired by" ripoff in Forever 21 within weeks if not days. When the public fell in love with SUV's, every manufacturer had one the next season. The trick is to get close, but not too close: just ask Samsung.

And then there are those examples where the intention is, if not nefarious, at least focused on benign confusion in pursuit of the sale. Walk into your local supermarket, head to the cereal aisle and go to grab a box of Raisin Bran. You might first reach for the well know purple box from Kellogg's. But then you might notice the same product from others like General Mills and America's Choice. That's because the name "Raisin Bran" has been ruled descriptive, and is therefore not protected. When the District Court for Nebraska struck down the trademark in 1944 it said "The use of a similar name by another to truthfully describe his own product does not constitute a legal or moral wrong, even if its effect be to cause the public to mistake the origin or ownership of the product." The same can't be said of alternatives to Reese's Puffs, a chocolate peanut butter concoction begging to be in your bowl. And so the Milleville variant is labeled, not as tonguing trippingly, as Cocoa Peanut Butter Spheres.

We're seeing the same thing more and more in areas which used to be somewhat immune. Take films. If you're the kind to get your undead confused, you might pass have passed on this spring's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" to see "Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies." Or if you have kids, you might accidentally eschew "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (sample review: "one of the fanciest, most carefully assembled cartoons ever put on the screen.") for "Life's a Jungle: Africa's Most Wanted." (sample review: "The animation is horrible, dialogue non-existent except for when it's non-sensical, and the sound effects are straight out of a kindercare music class, and not in a good way.") Not that the filmmakers didn't know that going in. Writes Robert Hanna, the director, co-writer, composer and editor of the latter, "It's for little kids, not people who are going to judge the quality of the fur compared to a Pixar movie."

There's even a name for this: mockbuster. The idea is to create a film that will play off the publicity and buzz of a major release with one that costs substantially less. Hence, "Jaws" spawned "Great White," as well as "Monster Shark," while "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" begat "Village of the Giants." And is there any doubt what mass public conveyance vehicle was being swapped out in 2006's less-than-well-known "Snakes on a Train?"

The same can be said for books. If "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson is too violent, try "I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Karen Peebles. If you're too quick for Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," try "Thinking, Fast and Furious" by Jacob Tudor Baruch. And if "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L.James is too explicit for you, maybe "Thirty Five Shades of Grey" by J.D. Lyte will be tamer; after all there are 15 less shades.

Thankfully, a careful reading of most titles can usually squelch any confusion. Otherwise, you'll be looking to entertain the kids on a rainy Saturday and accidentally drop the wrong thing in the DVD player. After all, odds are Tom Hanks is not in "Forrest Hump."


Marc Wollin of Bedford, for better or worse, has no knockoffs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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