HOME HEARTSTRING 17: SENSE OF ADVERTISING

Advertising, like God, is everywhere in Quebec.

With its legendary feedback, Quebecers have become their own best advertisement.

The instant success of the Qu’est-ce qui fait donc chanter les p’tits Simard? campaign prompted the agency behind the commercials to lower the media spend to avoid saturation. (Saturation is never a good thing.) But then how do you explain viewers calling up TV stations asking them to run the p’tits poudings song or audience members at a René Simard concert asking him to sing the famous jingle (according to Nouvelles Illustrées)?

Is Quebec advertising folk or pop art? People talk about Pierre Lalonde’s latest commercial like they would his latest record. And we compare the bikini Dominique Michel wears in the 14 soleils TV spot to one she wore in a movie.

Wanting to test my proverbial modesty, reporter Luc Perreault wrote the following in the November 9, 1974 edition of La Presse:


“Through trial and error and a few hits and misses, a BCP adman was able to identify the 36 Heartstrings that resonate with Quebecers when it comes to advertising. In this respect we should highlight how his Labatt 50 ad campaign sort of paved the way for a certain style of commercial (popular) cinema, which has been fully embraced by some of our filmmakers (Denis Héroux comes to mind).”


Is advertising created by advertisers always based on instinct? Some of our local observers don’t think so. Let’s pretend for a moment that sociologists Fernand Dumont and Guy Rocher are the masterminds behind the On est six millions, faut s’parler (We’re six million strong, let’s talk) campaign. Now let’s look at some of their observations from La société canadienne-française (page 189) to see if we can tie our beer slogan in with their sociological approach:


1. “The situation our society is currently in could be the result of the difficulties we have in reinventing our collective image.” (What the authors are trying to say is there are six million of us.)

2. “We’re suffering because we have lost our ability to tell others and ourselves who and what we are.” (And they’d like to add that we need to talk to each other.)”


Quebec is a mass communications lab (let’s not doubt that for a second) and the experiments conducted in this lab will keep people talking for many years to come.

Very few consumer markets come close to ours (that’s me playing Heartstring 31) with regards to cultural homogeneity, the importance of disposable income and the impact of the media. I have yet to find these three features blended together with the same intensity and high level of quality anywhere else.

Anything goes in our lab. We can experiment with any content or medium using an intuitive or scientific approach. And we can collect clinical data that disproves any advanced theory.

Quebecers will gobble up any kind of message. Tuned in 24 hours a day, their feedback is instantaneous and their responses are quick and to the point. The Quebec population is like a huge pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other, either for or against any given content. And it always expresses its opinions on the matter regardless of the issue or product in play.

Extreme: the first choice of lotto enthusiasts in Quebec is the cheapest option, the Mini-Loto, yet their second choice is Loto-Canada, the most expensive ticket. Extreme: according to a report published in Le Jour newspaper (back when Yves Michaud worked there), the second favourite daily paper of Quebecers is The Gazette. It seems we want to know what the others are thinking when we sit down to think.

It’s a fairly rare occurrence in North American advertising, but it’s possible to find out for sure if an ad campaign presented in Quebec is successful within just one month of its launch.

So much so, in fact, that within our pool of consumers born of the same 10,000 ancestors, an advertising campaign introduced like a conversation or a board game requiring participation – meaning it’s able to trigger “tribal communication” (word of mouth) – will always reach a great many people very quickly and get them to respond to its message. (Certain people may take offense to the expression “tribal communication” but I have no problem with it when referring to the Quebec market.)

For the longest time the church bell was the only mass medium at work in the village. It was the only thing that made us stop and think on the spot. Depending on its tune (which is in fact a code), it would announce mass, vespers, births, deaths, fires, floods and rebellions, like in 1837.

We were part of the village as long as we could hear the church bell ringing. It united us with its sound. Thanks to that bell, we were part of a global, collective and instant event.

Bell towers have since been replaced by TV antennas. (Radio-Évangile, the 20,000-watt gospel radio station run by the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia, can reach up to one billion listeners in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.)

Since the primary listening area of a TV station sets the geographical boundaries of a village, we could create our own global village by putting together a network of all the TV and radio stations in Quebec. If we were to go ahead and actually do that, almost all Quebecers could simultaneously learn about something the premier said since 96.9% of all Quebec households own at least one television and they watch TV an average of 14 hours a day. The beat of our tribal drums reaches almost everyone in our consumer territory both in space and time.

Marcel Rioux is right about the oral media phenomenon when he writes:


“Electronic tools are enabling us to return to the oral tradition. Quebecers feel right at home in a society where instant access to information is making a comeback. The relay required in written communications is no longer an issue in this case. Actions and reactions become more animated and more spontaneous. If we compare oral communications to their written equivalent, we realize that oral communications are about more than just the message. Gestures, tone and facial expressions are also part of the equation. We’re revealing information about ourselves as much as we’re transmitting a message. It’s a more complete and global act. It also requires that we react, communicate and commit to the idea-sharing process immediately. We have to participate, get involved and let our spontaneity take over.”


An article in the August 1977 edition of L’Express reported on a study conducted by Harvard professor Laurence Wylie. Using controlled research, Wylie was able to demonstrate that only 7% of the content in communications is verbal, 38% is tone and 55% is facial expression. It’s no secret that Quebecers love watching charade games on television.

They also love symbolism, the art of discourse, poetry and fantasy. So basically, they also love advertising. They are all born admen and adwomen and they always have something to sell, even if it’s just how awesome Quebec really is.

Quebecers know how to work slogans as well as any seasoned advertising professional. They like to parody and poke fun at them, too. They love contests and promotions that require them to sloganize an idea in 20 words or less. Advertising is an art form that often mimics satire, sometimes going so far as to capitalize on the flaws in our politicians. Simply put, advertising is show business. And in Quebec, it’s a running gag as well.

The better original Quebec ad campaigns do compared to their translated Anglo-Saxon equivalents, the more we hone our skills as Quebec consumer-advertisers.

In the “Advertising sits down with consumers” section of our 300-page book La publicité Québécoise, BCP makes a lengthy practical demonstration of Heartstring 17 with the help of 10 of our clients. (I’d be a very lousy adman indeed if I didn’t recommend that you read this book.)

Many Heartstrings intertwine to create the Quebec super-advertiser. Heartstrings 12, 16, 25 and 35 are just a few. Actually, when grouped together they form more of a string quartet than a single Heartstring. In 1976, campaign spokespersons Dominique Michel and Pierre Nadeau used advertising as a pressure tactic in their negotiations with Air Canada after refusing to sign their contracts when the company was caught in the middle of the epic Gens de l’Air battle of the skies. And so we came full circle with advertising helping propaganda. Can such a fascinating phenomenon happen anywhere else but Quebec?

Joe Tremblay confuses advertising and propaganda:


“Strikes have become an advertising issue. I’ve noticed that the more newspapers talk about them, the longer they last. It’s all about which of the union leaders gets the most coverage.”


Here’s what Fernande has to say about commercials:


“I like commercials but there are just too many of them…up to seven or eight in a row during a movie. But if a show’s boring, I say put more ads in. I like the ones with kids or impersonators. I love watching Dominique sing on the beautiful beaches. And as far as Olivier Guimond is concerned, he could be in a ton of commercials because he’s always so darn funny! There are other ads you only need to see once. Which ones? Anything to do with soap. There are too many of those. And K-Tel, clothing sales, garbage bags, the scrubbing bubbles and the one with the kid eating at the table and his mother looks like a complete moron. Do they provide me with information on the product? I’d say they do in the newspapers. But I don’t know about TV. I’d say those are less informative. Do they make me buy the product? Maybe, but I like to ask around and check with my friends before I buy something new. Beer commercials? I don’t drink beer. Talk to Joe. I’m sure he can help you there.”


On July 17, 1977, Dernière Heure (a Quebec current events show) commented on a joint study by TV Hebdo (TV Guide) and the Office des Communications sociales (public service communications bureau) that completely validated Fernande’s comments.


“Even though most people don’t care for the Tide commercial (the one where a woman comes out of a supermarket), it’s proven to be quite effective. More than 35% of respondents want these Tide commercials taken off the air. But if we look at the numbers, we can see these ads are the most effective with a 14.5% success rate followed by the petits pots carreautés (Vachon spreads) and credit cards. A small number of survey takers would do away with all beer commercials (13.2%), Vigoro (13%), as well as toys and K-Tel (10%). Labatt’s On est six millions (We’re six million strong) campaign has the highest slogan recognition rate at 94%.”


So which one is the by-product of the other? Quebec advertising or the people of Quebec?

We can safely state (without any possible contradiction) that Quebecers are receptive and open to persuasion.

“If we look closely,” says Marcel Rioux, “we can quickly tell that Quebecers are better suited to communications than they are for production.”

North America, the mother of advertising, has given birth to a monster advertiser…the people of Quebec!

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.