KUALA LUMPUR, June 26 — Two executives with advertising firm Leo Burnett Malaysia have defended themselves over claims of plagiarism involving an advertisement commissioned by state oil firm Petronas and submitted to the Cannes Lions awards.
Responding to filmmaker Tan Chui Mui’s allegations that the firm’s Rubber Boy advertisement was adapted from an unsuccessful pitch her team made for the 2015 Petronas Chinese New Year campaign, creative director James Yap said the story of a poor son of a rubber tapper was a “personal family tale”.
“Rubber Boy began in 1930s Malaya when my grandfather served with the British Air Force as an aircraft foreman. When the Japanese invaded, he buried his uniforms and all his documents — anything that could tie him and his family to the British.
“After the war, he never did manage to find what he buried. Undocumented, he worked in an oil palm estate in Layang Layang where mother was born in 1949. I’ve never lived in an estate but I know the stories,” Yap wrote.
He also sought to explain parallels between elements in the advertisement and others from the lives of his family members as well as his own, including a key scene conveying the ingratitude of the protagonist towards his mother for failing to provide him with what his peers appeared to enjoy.
Yap also said he will publish both the firm’s script and Tan’s version, which he described as so far apart that one would need a bus to get between the two.
“So when Tan Chui Mui cried foul, claiming that her story had been plagiarised, I couldn’t help but think who stole from who. It hurt that my story had been stolen and the actual writer vilified,” Yap wrote.
Separately but also via Facebook, Leo Burnett business director Eswara VAN Sharma also defended the firm against Tan’s claim, rejecting any possibility that there was plagiarism involved.
He posted a presentation slide that he claimed was the submission to Leo Burnett and another posted by Tan, in order to convey that difference in the ideas. He also claimed the slide Tan posted had been doctored dishonestly.
The two slides appeared similar, albeit with nuanced differences.
Eswara also suggested that the allegation arose because Rubber Boy was now in contention at the Cannes Lions creativity festival in France.
“But somehow, the desperation to grab a piece of the success has made some people lose both reason and honesty. To the extent that they are manipulating facts to bolster their side of the story,” he wrote.
Tan responded to both posts after they were made, first thanking Yap for pointing out the generic nature of any tale involving a child of a poor rubber tapper, noting that it was also an idea she had used before elsewhere.
But she insisted that the final product incorporated a crucial element from her team’s pitch, where “Rubber Boy” struggles to lift a heavy basket that his mother later carries with seeming ease, adding that she would not have complained had that scene not been included.
She also responded to Eswara’s allegation that she edited the presentation slide dishonestly with a similar accusation, before warning others not to send submissions prepared using the PowerPoint presentation programme lest these be edited later.
In a series of postings on the social networking site since Friday, Tan alleged that Rubber Boy originated from a pitch she had made to Leo Burnett in December 2014 for Petronas’ CNY campaign last year.
She claimed the pitch was not chosen as Petronas did not conduct a campaign for 2015, but that her team was shocked to see the concept in the advertisement shown this year.
Tan’s complaint prompted protests from the Screenwriters’ Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (Penulis), which also urged Cannes Lions officials to investigate the claim.
Rubber Boy is a 4:58-second-long advertisement that centres on a young boy named Ah Hock who learns tough lessons about sacrifice and family values after lashing out at his rubber tapper mother over their impoverished life.
Leo Burnett had submitted Rubber Boy for this year’s Cannes Lions festival under the Craft Section for Best Script.
Leo Burnett chief executive Tan Kien Eng earlier asked to meet with the filmmaker over the allegations before he took further action.