Advertisers won't save the French language
Quebecers respond better to ads using Québécois dialect

One day a year, the Quebec advertising community speaks French. Not the Québécois dialect that so embarrasses the province's élites, but the real deal, France French, the language of Moliére and Hugo.

Quebecers have a love hate relationship with French. They want to protect it, but they don't want to speak it. For a variety of reasons, over the years Quebecers have allowed their dialect to drift so far from its roots, that it is almost unusable on the international stage. The diction is different, the vocabulary changed, and the use of personal pronouns is skewered.

"We have become a country of Dings and Dongs and Elvis Grattons," talk show host Gilles Proulx once joked, referring to Quebec television and film characters who butcher the language.

To combat the deterioration, the Office de La Langue Française, --in its perpetual quest for enemies -- has targeted the province's advertising industry. But while the office uses coercion when targeting Chinese shopkeepers and kosher food importers, the province's ad industry is comprised mostly of francophones.

So incentives are the method of choice. Four years ago the office instituted the Prix Jacques Bouchard to honor advertising that demonstrates good use of the French language.

The province's advertising industry takes the awards ceremony pretty seriously. Last Wednesday the Spectrum was jammed, with ad pros anxious to know which of the 164 entries would walk away with the five prizes being awarded.

Everyone was on their best linguistic behavior. Vous replaced tus, the slang was dropped, and the dialogue sounded like Parisian poetry. Nobody understood each other. But a good time was had by all.

However there is a big difference between showing up at an awards ceremony, and actually spending the money to make ads that use good French. Quebec francophones tend to regard as snobs those who practice good diction and stress proper language usage.

Quebecers - influenced by the Americans - are much less formal and status conscious than their cousins across the ocean. Their language increasingly reflects this, especially in its spoken version. Advertisers recognize this and respond by producing ads that speak to Quebecers in way that makes them comfortable, that is, in the Québécois dialect.

Not one of the five prizes awarded at the ceremony was to a pure private sector advertiser. Two awards were given to ads by Quebec government controlled corporations: Loto-Québec and the Société des Alcools du Quebéc. One prize was given to the Historia channel, whose programs are heavily government subsidized, with the Canadian Alliance picking up the final prize.

In a telling demonstration of the deterioration of spoken French in advertising, the jury was not able to find a single radio ad that merited distinction, so no prize was given..

The office is on to something. Sort of. French's biggest threat in Quebec, is deterioration from within. As the Quebec dialect diverges from the French spoken on the international stage, it becomes a far less useful tool. There is a possibility that those who want to get ahead in life will increasingly rely on English.

But the biggest culprits are not advertisers and content producers. It's Quebec's teachers, backed by their powerful unions, and overstaffed education ministry who are more to blame. Fir decades they have completely botched their responsibilities, by ignoring the "three Rs," and advancing students through the grades regardless of whether they learnt anything the previous year. But the teacher's unions - generally big Parti Québécois backers are untouchable and so advertisers get blamed.

Quebec bureaucrats don't understand that advertising is not propaganda. Advertising can't convince people to products they don't want nor can it get them to speak in a diction they are not comfortable with. If advertisers want to sell their products they need to talk to people, not down to them.

Advertisers respond to the government pressure by showing up to the Jacques-Bouchard awards, politely adopting the Parisian diction for one day, and loudly cheering the prize-winners. Then for the rest of the year, they had back to their offices and make ads that Quebecers respond to: those using the Québécois dialect.


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