Blurred Lines: Navigating the Ethical Landscape of Digital Creation in Brand Campaigns

By Tom Christmann, Executive Creative Director, Catch+Release

Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?

In a world of digital creation and social media, with millions of pieces of content being uploaded every day by creators large and small, it can sometimes be hard to see. More and more brands are turning to the deep creative reservoirs on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube to fuel the strategies behind their campaigns. Marketers are being inspired by the real thoughts, feelings and stories of their customers, prospects and employees.

But, as we tap into this neverending current of creator content, we have to remember the real responsibility we’ve been given. The recent controversy surrounding a couple of Super Bowl commercials serves as a stark reminder of the ethical complexities in this new digital world. Let’s talk about it.

Image: @arevook on the Catch+Release Creator Community

A Case Study in Digital Ethics

Cetaphil, a skincare brand known for its gentle and effective products designed for all skin types, aired their first Super Bowl ad, called “Dads and Daughters” this year. The ad was heartfelt and well crafted. Like a lot of Super Bowl commercials, it aimed to connect emotionally with its audience. It featured a narrative of a white stepdad and his black stepdaughter sharing a skincare routine while they watched football. The ad quickly went viral, promoting Cetaphil’s focus on nurturing skin health in everyday family life to millions.

There was just one problem: the concept of the ad was an exact copy of a story being told by Shaon Mbabazi, who goes by @sharavinaaa on TikTok. The similarities of the story included pop culture references to a certain pop megastar that would be attending the game and the racial backgrounds of the characters (a white stepdad and a stepdaughter of color). Even certain actions, like the father applying lotion under his eyes, were reminiscent of Mbabazi’s posts, where her stepdad used under-eye masks.

As with all things internet, the public outcry was swift. Cetaphil and its agency partners initially responded to the backlash by stating that any similarities were coincidental and that they had not seen Mbabazi’s content prior to creating their ad. They said the ad was inspired by a broader trend of young women and girls bonding with their fathers over skincare and football, which many shared on social media. But Sharon and her stepfather then did a TikTok where they called out Cetaphil for taking the story “bar for bar” without credit. In the post, Sharon’s stepdad asks Swiftie Nation to “call them out on it.”

In the end, the brand reached out to Mbabazi to acknowledge her contribution to the trend and to make things right by making her an official partner of the brand. “We are delighted to be working with Sharon and other influencers like her who embrace skincare and maintain such a positive online presence on this topic,” a spokesperson told the press.

But the damage to Cetaphil’s reputation could have been avoided.

Clearing Up Your Content Complexion

The legal frameworks currently governing copyright and intellectual property rights often fall short of adequately protecting creators, especially in rapidly evolving fields like digital content creation. In the fashion world, for instance, American copyright law still does not extend its protection to fashion designs viewed as utilitarian objects rather than works of art. This legal gap allows for the proliferation of copycat designs, diminishing the value of original creations and discouraging innovation.

In the nascent world of content creation, the legal frameworks are even less concrete. But these gaps in the law don’t matter when it comes to the court of public opinion. These days, even the most niche digital creators can have an army of followers who will make it their business to defend the rights of their favorite TikTok stars. For marketers and ad professionals, controversies like the Cetaphil Super Bowl debacle serve as cautionary tales, highlighting the importance of ethical considerations in campaign planning and execution.

Here’s a few key takeaways and recommendations for navigating the complex terrain of digital content curation:

Conduct Thorough Due Diligence

Before launching campaigns, brands should rigorously research the origins of their creative ideas to avoid unintentional appropriation or infringement of copyright. This means every marketer and advertising professional should be on all the social platforms.

Acknowledge and Compensate Creators

When drawing inspiration from existing work, it’s crucial to acknowledge the original creators, seek their consent and offer fair compensation. The days of free UGC are over.

Foster Collaborative Relationships

Brands can benefit from establishing partnerships with creators, leveraging their influence and creativity in a way that benefits both parties.

Cultivate Cultural Sensitivity

When incorporating elements from different cultures, brands must approach with respect and sensitivity, ensuring that their use of such elements is appropriate and acknowledges the source community’s contributions.

Advocate for Legal Reform

The creative industry should push for updates to copyright and intellectual property laws to reflect the realities of digital and cultural creation in the 21st century.

With so much amazing content being created every single day online, there are lots of opportunities for creativity and innovation. But this new world also poses significant ethical challenges. The Cetaphil story underscores the need for a balanced approach that respects the rights and contributions of creators while fostering an environment of collaboration and appreciation. By adopting ethical practices and advocating for legal reforms, marketers, ad professionals, and creators can navigate these challenges, ensuring a vibrant and sustainable creative ecosystem for the future.