HOME HEARTSTRING 1: COMMON SENSE

Joe Tremblay’s iconic “That makes sense” and “That makes no sense” go-to phrases have become somewhat of a decree, so everybody beware!

The sense Joe is referring to is the Common Sense that Balzac defines as the logical intelligence of simple folk. Quebecers even pronounce the word the same way people did in Balzac’s day, making the second “s” in sens silent, like in sans dessus dessous (topsy-turvy).

In 1976 the Feedback social communications agency created an ad campaign for the Office de la protection du consommateur (Consumer Protection Agency) which struck a major chord with consumers. You may remember seeing Le gros bon sens everywhere back then.

In one of the texts written for the campaign, popular philosopher of the people Yvon Deschamps talked about an aunt of his. “Do you know my aunt Gertrude? She’s one of the thriftiest women I know. She’s worked hard every day of her life from morning ‘til night. In the 42 years she’s been married, she’s never missed a single sale, from liquidation sales to fire sales, end-of-season sales to Christmas sales, and even Father’s Day sales.

“At some point, though, my uncle had to say his piece. ‘Gertrude,’ he says, ‘we can’t make ends meet anymore. I think you’ve been saving beyond our means.’ I was young when I heard this, but I still figured out it ends up costing a lot when you spend every paycheque saving money at all these sales.”

Unlike preachy campaigns that try to scare consumers into getting their financial life in order, the Le gros bon sens campaign didn’t give orders or ask people to do the impossible. Instead, it opted for a castigat ridendo more (one corrects bad habits by making fun of them) approach to try and help us change our ways using humour. Using the Socratic Method, the campaign showed just how ridiculous and out of control things were. It blew the problem out of proportion to the point where consumers became sick enough of the situation to do something about it.

Common Sense, a very peasant virtue, will be transformed by the Cartesian and Parisian way of thinking of a French adman who, taking orders from on high, analysed a campaign from Crédit agricole (farm credit) in Stratégies magazine.

The ad encouraged farmers to RECONNECT WITH COMMON SENSE. COUNTRY FOLK HAVE ALWAYS PRIDED THEMSELVES ON HAVING COMMON SENSE AND THEY’VE BUILT CRÉDIT AGRICOLE IN THEIR IMAGE. TODAY’S CITY DWELLERS STILL NEED FRESH AIR, AND CRÉDIT AGRICOLE BRINGS THEM SOLID IDEAS, VISION AND EXPERIENCE.

To which any creative city dweller replies, “So we’re all farmers then? Let’s think for a minute about what qualities usually come to mind when we’re talking about farmers. Craftiness? That’s no good for a bank. It would give people the wrong idea. Thriftiness? Maybe, but it doesn’t take long to go from thrifty to Scrooge. Grounded? Sure. But that’s not enough. Common Sense? Bingo! Farmers have good old Common Sense that’s as deep as their traditions. Have you ever read in any book about a farmer who doesn’t have Common Sense? Common Sense and farmers go together like stinginess and the Scots. It’s a well-known fact and an undeniable truth.”

I’m sure you won’t be surprised that Common Sense pretty much goes against everything the very cerebral French advertising industry favours when developing a campaign.

Another advertising school of thought, the American one, prefers a pragmatic approach that uses anti-Common Sense. It’s the ab absurdo argument that has given us Madame Blancheville, the Tornade Blanche (White Tornado), Mr. Clean and Madame Déry de Trois-Rivières. Each time I’ve had the opportunity to interview groups of students or consumers they’ve always said ads for cleaning products that use an anti-Common Sense approach are the worst because they show people who don’t have Common Sense in situations that don’t make any sense. So does anti-Common Sense sell because it offends people? The Americans seem to think so…

Advertising has not yet shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the absurd doesn’t sell in Quebec. It will be up to the new generation of Quebec consumers to prove it once and for all.

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