"At least it makes a change from cars and Camembert," a fellow expatriate commented when we were talking about changes to the television advertising rules in France. It's true that tough restrictions and the French love of dairy products have tended to make commercial breaks over here a bit ... well, cheesy.
All that is changing, though, as France conforms to European guidelines and the country's often eccentric restrictions tumble one by one. From January 2004, the press and retail chains were allowed to advertise on television for the first time. (Both sectors were previously banned to ensure fair competition.) Retailers are still only permitted to advertise on cable and satellite, and will have to wait until 2007 to sell their wares on terrestrial television. The press, however, can advertise all over the place.
And how. Emmanuel Charonnat, the head of Carat TV in Paris, estimates that in the first half of January, 15 titles spent a total of five million euros on more than 1,140 spots across the French television landscape.
If this level stays constant (which Charonnat feels is unlikely) the press could account for 2.7 per cent of French TV adspend by the end of 2004.
According to Charonnat's calculations, Emap led the field, spending an estimated 1.4 million euros on its TV listings titles Tele Star and Tele Poche. But heavyweights such as the news magazine L'Express and Le Monde's glossy new supplement Le Monde 2 have also been quick to get their mastheads on to TV.
And that's just the trouble, according to Charonnat. "The titles are there, but the creative is missing," he opines. "As the press has no TV advertising experience, titles are happy to slap their front covers on the screen. I think they are waiting to see whether the medium is effective before spending money on good creative."
But some don't believe in waiting. On 17 March, Conde Nast France will embark on a TV campaign to re-launch Glamour magazine in the handbag-friendly size that has gone down so well in the UK. Shot by the photographer Ellen Von Unwerth, the four spots have been made by Les Ouvriers de Paradis, an agency specialising in luxury brands (and part of the Red Cell network).
Didier Suberbielle, the chief executive of Conde Nast France, jokes that the company appears to be the only publisher willing to spend "an outrageous amount of money" on TV. "It seems natural to use a newly available medium for a launch," he explains. "I think it's important to match your medium to your product. I don't believe TV is intrinsically better for magazines than radio or posters - but for Glamour, it's perfect."
Suberbielle confirms the ads will run in primetime slots on the mainstream channels TF1 and M6 (traditionally the home of popular programmes such as Friends, Sex and the City and reality TV). "These channels attract the mass audiences we are looking for. We are aiming for a circulation of about 200,000 for Glamour - as opposed to Vogue, which is about half that. But Vogue is an elite title, and you won't see it on TV."
With the French press still struggling to emerge from recession, few titles have the budget for pricey television campaigns a la Conde Nast.
Media buyers say that, for the time being, the press is unlikely to abandon outdoor and radio for good. Denis Jeambar, the president and editorial director of L'Express, says his magazine will use TV for "special announcements, when we need to reach as many people in as little time as possible". The title's current spots promote its decision to appear on Mondays rather than Thursdays.
Television's high point of entry will enable a select number of magazines to stand out - which partly explains its appeal to TV listings titles.
Isabelle Grima, the head of TV at Initiative in Paris, says: "TV is, of course, the natural home for listings titles. But they have also suffered from similarity of content and an undefined brand image. TV allows them to differentiate themselves."
While the press runs amok across terrestrial TV screens, retailers are limited to France's 80 or so cable and satellite channels, which between them reach only 25 per cent of the population. Are retailers angry about being sidelined? You bet.
Alain Thieffry, the European director of marketing and communications for Carrefour, says: "Considering the success of our TV campaigns elsewhere in Europe, it is irritating that we are limited here in France. As they reach predominantly young urban audiences, these (cable and satellite) channels are effectively niche."
He adds that there are continued restrictions on the types of messages that retailers are allowed to broadcast. "We're not allowed to compete on price," he says. "We're limited to brand-building campaigns, or responses to health and environmental issues."
Nevertheless, Carrefour will begin screening ads in March, while the smaller supermarket chain Champion - part of the Carrefour group - made its TV debut in January. "It will give us some indication of how consumers will react in 2007," Thieffry says. "Our policy is to take the budget we normally reserve for point-of-sale catalogues, and use it on TV."
Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see which of France's advertising rules will face the axe next. The most likely candidate is the one stressing that phrases in English must be accompanied by a translation in French.
For L'Express, whose campaign uses the tagline "Good news", this could be une bonne nouvelle.
TV AD RULES IN FRANCE
- Advertising on the public channels France 2 and 3 is restricted to eight minutes per hour. The privately owned TF1 and M6 are allowed to screen up to 12 minutes, because they do not receive a contribution from the licence fee.
- There must be a gap of at least 20 minutes between each break. Films and TV movies can only be broken once, and for a maximum of six minutes. News, current affairs, religious and children's programmes can only be interrupted if they are more than 30 minutes long.
- Alcohol, prescription drugs, firearms, casinos, betting shops, political parties and tobacco are banned.
- Ads promoting competing products are not screened during the same break - although this guideline is regularly flouted. Comparative advertising is discouraged. Product placement and subliminal advertising are banned.
- Sponsorship is allowed, providing the product is suited to the programme.
- Ads must be broadcast in French; any foreign phrases must be translated.
(Sources: TF1, M6).