In France, ads aim at the heart, not wallet

By Michael Kimmelman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PARIS

Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 12

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 Musee des Arts Decoratifs 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, whose Lalo Schifrin theme music has become embedded in the French psyche, an equivalent of the US’ “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, French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month banned commercials from four major stations during evening hours, with two more to follow.

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. Former US vice president Dick Cheney will ask for French citizenship before that one is broadcast in the US.

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 the US, just don’t wash in France.

“That’s because we have always had a very unhealthy relationship to money,” said Jacques Seguela, chief creative officer for Havas, the country’s second-biggest advertising agency.

“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,” Seguela said. “This explains why television commercials started so late here — essentially because leftist opposition saw ads as corrupting the soul.”

Which is not to say that the French dislike commercials. They actually love their TV ads. They just prefer not to admit it.