The Great Vegan Cookie Guy Rip Off
posted: March 30, 2006
not zimm...
I get asked a lot if I was the guy who did the packaging illustration for The Alternative Baking Company and their popular line of vegan cookies. The answer is no, I did not. The cookies first appeared in small numbers about ten years ago and I glumly noted the rather blatant appropriation of my illustration style being used as the face of their product line. I never attempted any legal action (not much one can do in a case where the rip-off artist isn't ripping you off exactly). I did write a note to the owner at the time, telling him that if he ever wanted the real thing, he should call me. He never did. I also never learned who actually drew it. The fellow that started the company is also a vegan children's book author and apparently runs with a posy of vegan illustrators, so maybe one of them did it.
A longer than necessary foot-note to this... I'm well aware of my own artistic limitations, but never-the-less, I was able to carve out a little nitch for myself with a unique enough look that people could recognize it when they saw it. Overly bold outlines always, spiked zig-zag hair often employed, scratch board artifacts left in place, very often a triangle nose in the early days, and evenly spaced hatch marks to vaguely indicate shadow areas - these continue to be staples of the what I do and what art directors learned to expect. Happily, even art directors who have asked me about the Alternative Baking Company logo illustration seem to already know that I didn't do it - or if I did, I was having a really bad day. "It's a rather sad imitation of what you do", they always say, consolingly. The downside of this for me is that in the world of branding and packaging, a certain style only has so much currency to spend before it runs itself out. Brands require unique identities and when that identify is a style that is unique enough, it's good for the brand, and other brand managers take note of that. One can't have a product "look" that is similar to another. Each brand, to be successful, has to have their own unique identity. So, what the Alternative Baking Company did to me, by appropriating the look and feel I had created for myself, was to categorically lock me out of product packaging illustration, grocery store shelves in particular. I can tell you the downside described above is not just theoretical either. For years I did many illustrations for the American Dairy Association - in store displays were common, collateral in-store give-aways and a bit of packaging, all containing my peculiar brand of drawing. As soon as the Vegan Cookie Guy got wide distribution, I was told flat-out by the art director that I was done with the Dairy account. Vegan and dairy , ya know. It didn't matter that I hadn't actually done it, the client recognized the style, promoting, shall we say, "a diametrically opposite world-view" and I was promptly shown the door. What other opportunities I have missed because of the Vegan Cookie Guy, I shall never know.
Josh McKible March 31, 2006
Oh my, that Diary Association story is quite the cautionary tale. Put another way, that really blows.
David Flaherty March 31, 2006
Zimm, you need to speak with James Yang if you think you have a case. He took had a case of rip-off and was well rewarded when he won. Big corporation though. At least get weekly cookies.
Nancy Stahl March 31, 2006
But to "win" would really only be for others to understand that they are stealing from you when they appropriate your style. I've had students write to say, in all expectation that they are being flattering, "My teacher has assigned us to copy an illustrator's style, and I have chosen YOU..! Can you please send me larger images since the ones on your website aren't big enough for me to see the details." Honest. I have to admit I bought one of those cookies when they first came out. They aren't very good. You don't want to be paid off in their cookies.
Robert Saunders March 31, 2006
Zimm, I always thought you did those cookie wrappers. Alas you are right in saying that a style only has a certain amount of currency to spend before it runs out. Or, put another way (as told by Paul Basista of the Guild many years ago): What are the four stages of an illustrators' career? 1. Who's Robert Zimmerman? 2. Get me Robert Zimmerman! 3. Can you do Robert Zimmerman? 4. Who's Robert Zimmerman?