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« Venez comme vous êtes. »

Who would have thought that this simple phrase could ignite so much controversy…

Bill O’Reilly, a conservative political commentator for Fox News Channel, had his two cents (dommage… 97 more and he would have been able to buy himself a small soda) to add the French-American culture way, when he featured a French McDonald’s commercial on his popular show, The O’Reilly Factor.

What was all the fuss about? Take a look and guess.

Gay McDonalds’ ad in France

Bill O’Reilly started bashing the commercial for the manner in which McDonalds “uses” homosexuality as a “political statement to sell burgers”. A fellow commentator, Jane Skinner, added: “They show people from different walks of life. This happens to be their ‘gay-friendly’ ad”.

O’Reilly’s response: “Do they have an Al-Qaeda ad?” Ouch.

Granted, this petite polémique is a blip on the radar that dates back to prehistoric times (i.e. 2010), if you consider how much information we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. However, what interests me the most is the comment O’Reilly mentioned several times during this segment: “It’ll never run in the USA”.

Really? As Americans and the French start to have more and more cultural tastes in common, can we really assume that what works in one country for a company as universal as McDonalds won’t work for another?

To answer my question, I conducted a highly legitimate evaluation called ‘asking around’ to see how Americans react differently to commercials than the French. Apparently, yes. There are a few key differences in how French people bring themselves to invest or purchase in something – whether this be an airline ticket or a formule. Through a bit of online research, here are two major differences I’ve found:

It’s not a commercial – it’s a 30-second philosophical ode to the joys of life and the benefits of intellectual culture. Duh.

Peugeot 206 Commercial – YouTube

You skim through magazines and stop at every page, including the advertisements, to admire the lighting, model, and/or general tone.

‘Flipping through commercials’ to get to a program? No – you flip through programs to get to the commercials.

Congratulations. French TV is for you.

Since Nicolas Sarkozy banned commercials on France’s major public channels during evening hours, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that commercials are ‘sought after’ by the public, but it might be true that they do have to have a certain style or artistry to them to be noticed. Many of the most well-known commercials in France appeal to the viewer’s sense of nostalgia or humor. Lost your lover? Never had one? Craving cheese in the middle of the night? These burning questions, all completely irrational and dictated by our emotions, are what French commercials try their best to answer in 30 seconds. Rather than the more pragmatic American approach of ‘Get off your couch and subscribe to a dating service’, the French aim more towards, ‘Spritz yourself with X perfume and you’ll soon find yourself flying naked in midair with a gorgeous man.’

This kind of imagination and creativity doesn’t come cheap, which is why many companies recruit top-notch directors to realize the 30-second fantasies for their consumers. Michel Gondry and Luc Besson are only two many the many award-winning directors, known most for their films like the Science of Sleep and The Lady, respectively, who have directed many ads on behalf of L’Oreal, Dim’s, Orange and Air France.

6652601873_c797d8534fA screenshot from Michel Gondry’s famous Air France commercial

Money can’t buy love.

Jacques Segela, founder of ad agency RSCG and head of PR for Mitterand’s presidential campaign said it best in an interview with the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman: “American commercials go from the head to the wallet, British ones from the head to the heart, French from the heart to the head.”

So, at least in France, consumers have to first become attached to products before they buy them, perhaps because they remind us of our childhood or of the person we would like to become. I, personally, am not convinced. At the end of the day, a trash bag is a trash bag, a perfume is a concoction of chemical and floral compounds that make you smell nice, but, unfortunately, will not convince that tall, dark stranger on the bus to have your children.

This pragmatic and utilitarian approach is perhaps the effect of a long-term life led by (somewhat) rational behavior. Or perhaps I lack imagination. There is something to be admired about French ads, though, where the simple act of appreciation means more to the company than the actual purchase of the product. Hopefully, we can see more artful ads in the USA in the near future that will rival those of France, and French ads that flagrantly aim towards your checkbook. What can I say? Nous venons comme nous sommes…

Kimmelman, Michael. “Ads Not Merely Commercial in France.” New York Times. New York Times. Web. 7 Jan. 2012. .Carlson, Nicholas. “10 French TV Commercials Superior To Our Own (CLIPS).” Business Insider. 19 Feb. 2009. Web. 07 Jan. 2012. .

SuchIsLifeVideos. “Bill O’Reilly Outraged Over Gay McDonalds Commercial – YouTube.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Youtube, 3 June 2010. Web. 07 Jan. 2012.

About the Contributor

Julia Gueron

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  1. Julie Chamand Jan 24, 2012 at 2:58 PM - Reply

    Great article! I love comparing commercials. Here in Australia they’re more like American commercials. So I miss French commercials.

    I disagree with you when you say that French commercials don’t really aim at people’s checkbooks. They do, but in a subtle way.

    In France people are so weary and wary of commercials and advertisements that ‘hitting’ directly at them can have them avoid the product altogether as a rebellion. The purpose of French advertising is to imprint an (unconscious) memory of the brand in people’s minds, along with some appeal to it of course.

    Besides, I consider typical American commercials to be aggressive. Especially those with just the brand in a big font, over-bright colours and a man shouting at you telling you what to do. Programme interruptions are annoying enough without adding shot-in-five-minutes commercials.

    Anyway, there’s a (French) commercial I’d like to share: Internet by Orange.
    I get goosebumps almost everytime I watch it!!

    English version:
    French version:

    Let alone the language, the two versions are a bit different and are both worth checking!

    What about you out there? Do you have a favourite commercial (either American or French)?

  2. Guylaine Simone Gamble Jan 25, 2012 at 3:04 AM - Reply

    J’adore les pubs françaises …elles ciblent bien plus qu’un produit à vendre… certaines sont des oeuvres d’ art ( je pense a “L’envol “de Air France) certaines pubs elevent l’utile et le quotidien a un autre niveau… elles nous séduisent en offrant un mode de vie , une autre manière de voir les choses toujours avec style, charme; beauté ( J’Adore de Dior” et souvent beaucoup d’ humour et d’intelligence et un certain edge !

  3. Femme Francophile Jan 29, 2012 at 9:36 PM - Reply

    I enjoyed your well-researched article Julia. The references provide links to some entertaining ads. I have linked back to your post from my blog.

    Thank you to Julie too for the Orange ads. They were previously unknown to me.

  4. Julie Chamand Jan 31, 2012 at 10:02 AM - Reply

    You’re welcome Femme Francophile. Julia’s article is really great. I wish everyone would share commercials.
    There’s a TV program in France called “Culturepub” ( that gathers all the best commercials from any country, from any time. It’s a delight. You usually laugh your head off, and it’s really interesting to see how other (distant) countries target their people. It’s a mind-opener.

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