By Michael Kimmelman|International Herald Tribune | 20.02.09 |
An exhibition in Paris and a partial ban by the president have brought a focus on television commercials in France. In an iconic ad from 1968 - the first year France allowed TV ads - a man eats a late-night snack of Boursin cheese. (Agence Publicis)
PARIS: It's still famous here: a black-and-white advertisement from 1968 - the Lascaux cave drawing of French television commercials, you might call it - featuring a young man in his pajamas sitting bolt upright in bed, shouting, "Boursin!" over and over, then madly dashing for his kitchen to devour said cheese.
Lately Parisians have been congregating in a gallery of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to watch that bygone commercial along with a slew of others made here since the late 1960s. "Forty Years of Ads on TV" includes dozens of sexy Dim lingerie ads - directed by William Klein, Luc Besson, Tony Scott and Hal Hartley, among others - whose Lalo Schiffrin theme music has become embedded in the French psyche, an equivalent of America's "plop, plop, fizz, fizz."
The exhibition happens to have arrived at a curious moment, when several major purveyors of television commercials have suddenly had their ads pulled from the air. Ostensibly to improve programming, President Nicolas Sarkozy last month banned commercials from four major stations during evening hours.
This still leaves France with dozens of outlets on which to see Maurice Lamy, an actor dressed as a crazed, chainsaw-wielding Orangina Rouge soda bottle, screaming "Because!" Don't ask why; it doesn't matter. Or Bruno Aveillan's digital extravaganza for Paco Rabanne's XS perfume, in which a naked couple languidly copulate in midair like an X-rated version of the Flying Wallendas in slow motion.
Vive la France. French liberalism also accounts for Wilfrid Brimo's public service announcement about AIDS, a cheery animation of graphic gay sex, unfolding to the soundtrack of "Sugar Baby Love." Dick Cheney will ask for French citizenship before that one is broadcast in the United States.
Clearly, French commercials speak to French culture no less than French literature or music does. Long on sensuality, style and poetry, they are notably lean on facts and nearly allergic to the rough-and-tumble of commerce. It's forbidden here to denigrate your competitors in a television advertisement or to instruct viewers to call a certain number now to buy a product, save for exceptional cases. Hard-sell tactics, standard in America, just don't wash in France.
"That's because we have always had a very unhealthy relationship to money," explained Jacques Séguela, chief creative officer for Havas, the second-biggest advertising agency in France after Publicis Groupe. He spoke the other day in his sunny office, an all-glass affair with panoramic views of the city. A television, with flickering advertisements for automobiles and Perrier interrupting a bicycle race, played silently behind him.
"To us, money implies corruption, and moreover, because we consider ourselves the inventors of freedom, never mind if that's not true, we still consider advertising as a kind of manipulation," Séguela said. "This explains why television commercials started so late here - essentially because leftist opposition saw ads as corrupting the soul."
France did take a long time before it broadcast commercials on TV.
Years after the United States, Britain, Italy and other countries were making a new art form out of 30-second promotions for detergents and toothpastes, France still prohibited private advertising. Only in 1968, despite strong opposition from newspaper companies and the political left, did the government finally permit two minutes of commercials a day on a single television station. All the stations in France were public back then.
In retrospect, the same climate that led Boursin to invent the catchy new slogan "Du pain, du vin, du Boursin" - "Some bread, some wine, some Boursin" - also produced political sloganeering from students on the barricades, a kind of advertising, too. By the early 1980s, notwithstanding what Séguela just said about leftists being opposed to advertising, his appointment to oversee the public relations campaign of a leftist presidential candidate, François Mitterand, became a first for France.
It was no doubt partly to play on the country's historic ambivalence about television commercials that Sarkozy the other day reversed the policy of the last 40 years and barred advertisements from French public television stations (France 2, France 3, France 4, France 5, with RFO to come) during evening hours.
Opponents were left to grumble about a plot to gain further presidential control over the media. So far, though, programming hasn't changed. It remains to be seen whether fees paid by people who own television sets here will have to go up to compensate for ad income lost by the government-owned stations. Meanwhile the move was a public-relations coup for the president.
Which is not to say that the French dislike commercials. They actually love their TV ads. They just prefer not to admit it.
"We're not a Protestant culture," said Stéphane Martin, director of the French union for television advertisements. "So we have difficulty accepting successful people and embracing advertising as a means of selling. And there has always been such a strong sense that the state should be responsible for public services, like television."
But the government argued back in 1968 that commercials would help French companies and - this from the land of Descartes and Tocqueville - help further democracy, in that television had become a democratic medium. Some 60 percent of French households owned TV sets by then.
Before that, French stations broadcast only a few public-service spots carrying messages like "Change the tie, the tie will change you," "Eat apples for beautiful teeth" and "Beans at your place" (to promote French legumes). Such earnest ditties yielded by the 1980s to what Amélie Gastaut, the curator of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs show, likened the other day to a renaissance of French television advertising.
That decade was the Golden Age, she said, when directors like Jean-Paul Goude and Étienne Chatiliez produced smart, sleek productions for Peugeot, Cooper Jeans and Eram, the French discount shoe purveyor. They were succeeded by a generation weaned on electronic music and digital animation, by directors like Michel Gondry and Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, who ushered in the current era of lush, phantasmagoric effects.
Gérard Pirès, director of more than 400 commercials, the first in 1968, lamented the other evening that French television advertising today takes fewer risks, "in terms of fighting with clients for creative freedom."
"Digital technology also means that instead of spending a few days mixing a dozen sound tracks, which was the case 25 years ago, we have an entire team that spends more than a month mixing more than 120 tracks," he said.
Pirès shrugged, and added: "So everything is more difficult now, but for us what remains most important is still the image of a product, not the product itself."
Or as Séguela formulated the situation: American commercials go from the head to the wallet, British ones from the head to the heart, French from the heart to the head.
That accounts for why, as in a classic French commercial for Canal Plus, the French pay-television station, a man describes a movie about emperor penguins in Antarctica to a woman who pictures hundreds of Napoleons sliding around the ice.
One recent morning, a cluster of young women sat rapt before a commercial by Aveillan of a buxom robot in a skintight suit caressing a naked man. It's a razor ad. Across the room, a mix of older Parisians smiled at the sight of a tight-lipped, elderly woman wrapping a sheet around herself, then belly surfing across a long, dusty table. It's for furniture wax.
"We stress sex and wit in our ads because that's our culture," Martin, the union chief, said. "Advertising is about presenting an idealized view of its audience. And this is who we would like to think we are."