BBC's 'Slay in your lane' scandal and the issue of creative appropriation

BBC's 'Slay in your lane' scandal and the issue of creative appropriation

The adage that 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' is not always true.

During my time at Campaign, I’ve noticed that it has become more commonplace for creatives to contact the publication and accuse a big brand or agency of ripping off their idea. In this age of meme-swapping and Instagram-sloganeering, it’s often difficult to wade through the murkiness of internet culture and determine the origin of an idea: what is new, what is borrowed or stolen, what is merely inspired by something else.

But this latest plagiarism allegation caught my attention. Yomi Adegoke, who co-authored the 2018 bestselling book Slay In Your Lane with Elizabeth Uviebinené, has accused the BBC of infringing on the copyright of the book’s title. BBC Sport’s campaign for the Fifa Women’s World Cup, created by in-house agency BBC Creative, uses the line "Slay in your lane" in one of its ads.

Slay In Your Lane, the self-proclaimed "black girl bible", is a guide to help black British women find success in their lives and the title is a registered trademark in the UK. The BBC’s billboard using the slogan draws on a similar empowerment theme and features black sprinter Dina Asher-Smith.

In an official statement issued earlier this week, the BBC said it "sought legal advice before going ahead and were advised that the use of headline 'Slay in your lane'... was sufficiently far removed from the goods and services covered by the trademark registration in place".

But Adegoke’s response raises an important point that is often lost when we discuss the issue of who owns a creative idea: "There’s an idea that we’re supposed to feel grateful to occupy certain spaces and be acknowledged, made visible by big organisations; even though it’s the opposite – erasure," she told The Huffington Post. "There was a misguided and nonsensical belief that we’d somehow be flattered."

The old adage suggests imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but not everyone finds this to be true – especially if that imitation does not acknowledge or respect the intent of an original voice that is already unjustly overlooked in our culture. Plus, not everyone wants to be tied to an industry that carries some of the guilt for ignoring those voices in the first place.

This BBC case reminds me of an incident involving the writers and creators Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, who co-host the US podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Friedman and Sow are known for coining the term "shine theory", which they have trademarked and written about extensively. Shine theory promotes collaboration rather than competition among women and means "when one of us shines, we all do", according to the CYG website.

Shine theory has since cropped up in many places on social media and, last year, a platform called Create & Cultivate appropriated it for a marketing initiative. Friedman and Sow called out the platform for not giving them credit and using the term for potential commercial gain without their permission.

The CYG team partly relies on advertising but has thus far never used shine theory in a brand partnership, even though it would make perfect fodder for a marketer who wants to support women’s empowerment. This is because, as Friedman explained in a 2018 episode entitled "Millennial Pinkwashing", shine theory is a "collaborative, anti-capitalist" message that is about helping women and "challenging a capitalist status quo that says ‘scarcity, scarcity, scarcity’".

CYG quickly reached a resolution with Create & Cultivate, which apologised, credited Friedman and Sow, and made a donation to a charity of their choice. But for many independent and minority creators, resolution never comes. The internet has made it far too easy for creators to get ripped off, while someone else gets paid.

For example, large fashion brands such as Zara have been accused of stealing designs from independent artists. In 2015, US writer Doreen St Félix penned an article entitled "Black teens are breaking the internet and seeing none of the profits". She pointed out that young creatives, many of them people of colour, were producing and sharing content on social media that influenced pop culture, yet they were not receiving credit or money for their work when it was used by a bigger brand. This is still often the case.

The empowering message of Slay In Your Lane may not be a new one, but the distillation of that idea into a clear and shareable concept took effort and creativity. As Friedman said about shine theory on her podcast: "People have an impression that this stuff is easy or free for the creators, and that is not the case. Time, money and trademark fees are involved."

There is this assumption, too, that anything found on the internet is in the public domain and up for grabs. But social media’s open and transparent nature actually makes all of us more accountable for finding out where ideas come from. Anyone who is creating a campaign or selling work to a client holds a responsibility to investigate the source of an idea and understand its context. Taking that extra step costs you nothing, but not doing so may come at a cost to the originator and their purpose.

The internet is still young and this debate about who owns the content circulating online will rage on. Advertisers, so eager to be relevant in culture and share a creative idea that resonates, should take heed of the challenge posed by Sow: "Like anything in capitalism, somebody’s getting exploited and somebody is not. Which side do you want to be on and what can you do to change it?"

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