France’s shocking new three-part anti-smoking campaign has managed to score a rare political trifecta: unifying conservative family organizations, feminists, and of course the tobacco industry against it. The ad, unveiled this week by the country’s Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, depicts a kneeling teenager (one features a girl and two show adolescent boys) with their head at the crotch-level of an obscured older man. The teenagers look vaguely fearful and utterly subservient, as the man appears to direct each head, with a forceful hand, toward his loins. There, protruding from the zipper is a cigarette. The caption: “To smoke is to be a tobacco slave.”
“Some young people don’t understand what is going on in the ad at all,” says Christiane Terry of Famille en France. “Others understand that it is an act of fellatio, but don’t even notice the cigarette.”
The message that the ad’s creators (who reportedly prepared the project pro bono) are apparently trying to convey: Cigarettes turn young people into the equivalent of sex slaves. They projected that the ad would offend older folk, but the young smoker-as-oral-sex-servant-to-the-Man trope has managed to offend everyone, and it has left the campaign on the verge of being banned. Christiane Terry, who represents a socially conservative family-friendly organization called Familles de France told The Daily Beast that the ad is “indecent” for its provocative portrayal of “denigration, humiliation, and submission.” As a result, her organization filed its first-ever complaint with a French advertising authority that quickly announced on the evening of February 24 that it is in favor of the "immediate termination" of dissemination of the ad. (It remains to be seen whether this has legal weight or not.)
Beyond the offensiveness, Terry laments the muddled messaging on such an important topic. “Some young people don’t understand what is going on in the ad at all. Others understand that it is an act of fellatio, but don’t even notice the cigarette.” (Indeed, even un-offended libertines have mocked or jabbed at the convoluted message, from ironic comments about how “blowjobs aren’t known to cause cancer” to observations that offering oral sex is not inherently submissive and that it can bring its own pleasures.)
Women’s groups in France have been more direct, lambasting everything from a new “trivialization of sexual violence” to the sudden disappearance of decades of progress. The shock-ad has even allowed its enemy, Big Tobacco, to portray itself and 29,000 beloved French kiosk sellers of cigarettes as victims of a campaign that goes over the top by suggesting that they are equal to rapists and pedophiles.
So why would France’s seasoned Non-Smokers’ Rights Association go down this path, especially when their cause has been winning most of its battles in recent years? The Gauloises blondes are largely long gone. Bold warning labels offer up messages such as: Smoking Can Kill, among other grim statements, and a 2008 smoking ban means that French people are prohibited from smoking indoors at bars, restaurants, cafes, and in professional workplaces or in communal indoor areas of apartment complexes. The measures have worked—the French smoked about 40 percent fewer cigarettes overall last year, (even as the population grew) than they did in 1991.
But the anti-cigarette association has good reason to target awareness campaigns at young smokers who are going against the broader French trend. Approximately two smokers in five between the ages of 12 and 25 are hooked, which amounts to a noticeable increase since the middle of the last decade, and teenagers gave the ad “very favorable” reviews, according to the anti-smokers’ association. Beyond that, health scare campaigns have proved to be of limited impact on young people who often ignore consequences until later in life. So the association tried to move beyond word-warnings and graphic pictures of rotting lungs, making their fight considerably more salacious. Their underlying goal is to break the common teen association between smoking and rebellion by showing that the addiction is a form of physical, psychological, and behavioral enslavement, according to the association’s Web site. Smoking, the statement suggests, will direct their actions, defile their bodies and “cost them” a great deal.
Several prominent figures in the French government—including some who battle youth smoking—hope to block the ads. “I approve of denunciations of the manipulation of young consumers by tobacco makers,” Minister of Health Roselyne Bachelot said on RTL radio on February 23, but this campaign is “inappropriate.”
The deputy minister for families, Nadine Morano, went further, calling the ads “profoundly shocking” on France’s RMC radio the same day, and she asked that the campaign be banned as an “offense” against public decency. “There are other ways to explain to young people that cigarettes make you dependent, [especially] at a moment when we are struggling against child pornography.”
It is unclear whether the advertising authority can mandate censorship of offensive images, rather than merely encourage it. If the latter is true, the pathway toward censorship would have to come through the courts—and as of yet, no one has made clear that they are ready to take on the anti-smokers’ association there. One thing is certain: The ad’s critics have served to spread the anti-smoking message around France more than any other advert might have.
In a sense, the gratuitousness of the campaign goes against a general softening of sexual content in commercials and on billboards, at least by French standards of recent decades. For years, soap and body gel commercials rarely involved women with covered breasts. Nudity seemed intricately bound with coffee pitches. Sadomasochistic imagery used to sell crème fraîche brought little more than smiles from television viewers, while topless Danone commercials offered the tagline: “What the yogurt does inside can be seen on the outside.” These days, things are, broadly speaking, more staid (again, by French standards), and a bit more picturesquely sexist, as with a popular calendar in cheese shops that shows chesty regional pinups incongruously hocking an array of regional fromage.
The aggressive new shock-ads, however, are a new breed. In an image-driven, advertising-saturated society, the representative of Familles de France told The Daily Beast, advertisers are perpetually looking to “out-do each other” with more in-your-face forms of provocation. That means stooping ever lower to get their message across. In this case, for a good cause, they were willing to stoop about waist high.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape