In France, Sex Sells — Even in Anti-Smoking Ads

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These French advertisements, by the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, show youths with a cigarette in their mouth, on their knees before an adult. The ads are part of an anti-smoking campaign that is generating controversy in France

The French aren't exactly squeamish when it comes to sex. Nor do they typically bat an eye when it comes to racy content in advertising. Now, however, a controversy has erupted over an ad that some feel has gone a step too far: it doesn't just evoke oral sex but actually seems to depict it. Worse still, the salacious images are targeting young people in what would otherwise be a laudable campaign — trying to stop them from smoking.

Family groups, women's rights organizations and myriad bloggers have joined members of Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government in objecting to what the Secretary of State for Family Affairs, Nadine Morano, has termed a "public outrage to decency" and vowed to ban. On Wednesday, the Association of French Families filed an official complaint with the national advertising regulators, accusing the campaign of violating ethics rules. Why all the fuss? The posters by the Non-Smokers' Rights Association (NSR) each feature a man or woman who looks to be in their late teens kneeling before a fully clothed adult male. A cigarette dangles from the youth's mouth, extending downward before seeming to disappear into the man's pants. Below the photo is a caption that reads: "Smoking Means Being a Slave to Tobacco."

Despite the anti-smoking message, detractors say the ads, which debuted on Monday in bars, cafés and tobacco shops, are in bad taste at the very least. Some critics say they even verge on child pornography. "There are other ways of explaining to young people that cigarettes are addictive," Morano railed on Tuesday on the radio station RTL. "Shocking people about tobacco doesn't bother me, but there are other campaigns doing that."

The anti-smoking group, however, disagrees. "The first cigarette is often viewed as a rite of passage toward the adult world and an emancipation," NSR says in a statement on its Web page, noting that while smoking has declined among most age groups, it has risen to 40% of 12-to-25-year-olds. "The campaign seeks to reverse that impression and make people aware that smoking isn't a defiance of authority, but instead a sign of submission and naiveté — a behavioral, psychological and physical submission to an addictive drug that will control their acts, dirty their bodies and cost them dearly."

And since nothing gets a message across like sex, NSR says it decided to use an image it believed teenagers would equate with a repulsive, manipulative elder persuading a young person to do his dirty bidding. But the ads are repelling more than just would-be smokers. Those in the tobacco industry, and even the owners of bars, cafés and shops where the posters have appeared, are outraged over the explicit sexual message in the images. Yves Trévilly, a spokesman for the French affiliate of British American Tobacco, lamented that someone working in the cigarette industry "could be compared to a rapist or a pedophile," while France's Confederation of Tobacco Vendors said the intent of the ads was "no longer prevention, but uncalled-for provocation."

This isn't the first high-profile, intentionally controversial campaign launched by the militant NSR, which late last year released a report showing that French people were increasingly flaunting anti-smoking laws in offices, cafés and trains. But the media fury generated by the oral-sex ads means the anti-smoking group has already accomplished what it set out to do — create a whole lot of buzz — even if Morano's ban is quickly put into place. That's a good thing too, because there are other ads jockeying to be deemed France's most controversial of the moment.

Ads for a proposed $47.5 billion bond issue the government is asking taxpayers to approve to provide stimulus investment for businesses and infrastructure have fallen afoul of feminists. The posters show Marianne — the Phrygian-bonneted symbol of the French Republic — barefoot, swathed in pure white and very pregnant. That, critics say, sends the chauvinist message of women as chaste, stay-at-home types whose sole function in life is to provide their husbands with children needed for labor and warring. Some detractors say the images also exploit women for political purposes. "The hand of the state shouldn't be in my uterus," wrote a blogger on the feminist website Le Féminin l'Emporte on Feb. 18. "And certainly not to look for money."

France's state railway SNCF has also gotten itself into hot water with a safety-information ad posted in trains in the southwestern part of the country warning passengers to be distrustful of Romanians. According to the brightly colored fliers, the SNCF has encountered "problems with Romanians" after "numerous thefts of luggage [had] been noticed" and urges "all acts by Romanians" to be reported. After initially thinking the alerts were the work of a prankster, French author Mouloud Akkouche complained to the SNCF and then took the story to the media, which pursued it enthusiastically. Unlike the NSR and the government, however, the SNCF has neither defended nor stood by the offending ads. "This should not have happened," a terse SNCF statement said. "An internal inquiry is under way to determine how it occurred."