The French: Not Just Blowing Smoke

A Sunday evening. The regular patter of French television commercials is broken by silence as a white-on-black message accosts 15 million unsuspecting viewers: "Traces of cyanide, mercury, acetone, and ammonia have been discovered in a widely consumed product." Within hours 1 million viewers call the toll-free number offered for more information. Those who got through were politely informed that "the product... is cigarettes."

This new campaign, launched by the French government, was inspired by the highly successful campaign of the American anti-tobacco group The Truth, whose on-air antics have included lining the doorsteps of tobacco companies with long trails of body bags. The French ads represent a paradigm shift for anti-tobacco ads in the traditionally smoke-loving nation. Previous campaigns were well conceived and humorous, claims French media analyst Claude Dognin, but he believes this one will leave a deeper impact. "The smokers were really frightened this time," he says. Although the shock value dissipated after the ad's first airing, the second phase ran through July 7 and drew an additional 150,000 people to the help lines. France has the highest rate of young smokers in Europe, and a recent price drop nationally by four major tobacco companies will only exacerbate the problem. "First, the government runs a campaign warning of the dangers of smoking, but then, smoking is encouraged by price cuts," one bemused tobacco dealer told Le Monde. "It's illogical."