France: Typically French

Satire? Cynicism? Baby talk? In a land known for its intellectualism and refinement, what's going on when its advertising starts being funny? Mark Tungate reports.

French advertising is shaking off the clammy grip of a moribund economy and re-emerging with a burst of vitality, enthusiasm and - quelle surprise - good jokes. At the annual prize-giving ceremony of the French Art Directors' Club a few weeks ago, the accent was on satire, cheekiness and dark humour.

"Anglo-Saxons still like to associate French advertising with luxury brands and fashion," Remi Babinet, the president of the French Art Directors' Club, comments. "But that's just a comfortable stereotype."

In fact, there seems to be a sense of fun about French ads these days.

It's as if the country's creatives are determined to bury the notion that France is all about intellectualism and refinement.

A case in point is an ad made by Babinet's agency, BETC Euro RSCG, where he is the creative director. "Water boy" for Evian took a gold at the New York Art Directors' Club awards in April, not to mention two silver Clios, and seems almost certain to be recognised at Cannes next week. The charming cartoon is a sequel to the popular "voices" spot, in which adults lip-synched We Will Rock You as sung by a toddler. French viewers voted it their favourite ad of last year.

"'Water boy' is fun, fresh and experimental," Babinet says. "It doesn't take itself seriously - you could say the same thing about a lot of French advertising at the moment."

Pascal Gregoire, the president of CLM/BBDO, agrees. "There are two trends in French advertising right now. The first is the realisation among clients that strong creative ideas make a difference to their profits: clients such as Peugeot and Danone are backing increasingly spectacular work. Also, we're seeing the emergence of a particular brand of French humour, which has nothing to do with the self-deprecating wit of the British, but is a kind of intelligent, provocative humour of our own."

Standouts include the ads by Devarrieuxvillaret for the shoe brand Eram and an incisive ad for the optician Visual from Enjoy Scher Lafarge. It depicts a newly bespectacled US president admitting to an astonished press corps that the installations he'd mistaken for missiles in satellite photos were in fact grain silos.

Olivier Altmann, a co-president of Publicis Conseil, comments: "The Visual spot is highly representative of French advertising right now. It's satirical and impertinent, and has absolutely no time for political correctness. In fact, French ads are becoming even less politically correct. We can get away with nudity and cruelty to animals, no problem."

Altmann has never undervalued the importance of humour in advertising, having created a series of amusing ads for the condom brand Manix when he was at BDDP & Fils. But he says French humour is developing a harder edge. "The Visual spot is notable for its cynicism and sophistication."

If "water boy" is the advertising equivalent of family entertainment, the Eram spots are more like Ally McBeal. The first execution features a woman hanging out washing, and at first we think it's a detergent ad.

But her words don't go with the images. "It's lucky I can afford to go out shopping for shoes, so I can forget the fact that my life is crap and everyone treats me like a housewife," she says.

A second version shows a young woman being interviewed for a job. She tells the panel of men in front of her: "Naturally, you don't want to hire me because you think I'll get pregnant in six months' time. Or perhaps I might sue you when you grab my arse beside the photocopier. In fact, the only thing in my favour is that you can pay me 30 per cent less than a man." She stands up, revealing her Eram shoes. "Good thing I know how to spend my money wisely."

The Devarrieuxvillaret co-founder Benoit Devarrieux says the ads work because they speak to the audience on a sophisticated level. "The principle of the spots is to explain that the shoes are good value for money," he says. "But just because a product is inexpensive, it doesn't mean your ads have to be patronising. The ads use irony to express the fact that spending your money wisely is an intelligent choice. In a way, they're taking a swipe at the fashion business."

The ads are highly representative of the agency's style. Although it has international clients such as Habitat and Volvo, its best work is often for French brands. Devarrieux says: "Because we don't position ourselves as an international agency, we can get closer to our domestic audience and communicate with them in a warmer and more human way."

Devarrieux believes that the spread of multinational brands is resulting in the homogenisation of advertising. "It's most obvious in print ads: there's no text, everything is codified so it can be understood by an international audience. But it's cold and impersonal. When I see the portfolios of young French creatives, I see a lot of work inspired by ads that have won prizes at Cannes. But we're not trying to communicate with an international jury - we're trying to communicate with people on the street."

A poignant example of this philosophy is the agency's poster campaign for the Transilien - the Parisian suburban train network. Shot by the legendary photographer Nan Goldin, it features ordinary people using the trains, accompanied by text capturing their thoughts. "These posters speak to their audience, establish a real rapport with them," Devarrieux says. "We mustn't forget this is the first rule of communication."

French creatives observe that the country's advertising output is held in higher esteem than it was a decade ago. "These days we can stand alongside Britain and the US," Babinet says.

Devarrieux adds: "Despite the relatively small size of the market, France - or more specifically Paris - has a disproportionate influence because it is still regarded as one of those places where trends are set. That is our luck, and also our challenge."