Here’s something I’ve learned from living in a city: for many people, the range of vocal expression between distress and exuberance is surprisingly narrow. In other words, when I hear yelling in the street, I often have a hard time telling if it means, “I’m deliriously happy and in all likelihood very drunk,” or, “I’m furiously angry and in all likelihood even drunker than that happy loudmouth over there, whom I am about to punch out, thus making him angry and me deliriously happy.”
I experienced an example of this phenomenon a couple of years ago as I was walking down Boulevard Montmartre on a Saturday night. I could hear some guy hollering his head off about three blocks away, but from a distance I couldn’t tell if it was out of gladness or madness.
As I drew closer, a pattern began to emerge: the yeller was yelling a single sentence over and over. Finally, I was close enough to pick him out of the crowd and then close enough to understand what he was saying.
What made the incident memorable was that his motivation was, in a way, a combination of distress and exuberance both: he was walking up and down in front of the restaurants and movie theaters alone, haranguing passers-by by shouting, “Advertising is ruining your lives and turning you all into mindless sheep!” about every 10 seconds. None of the sheep were paying him any mind.
At first I wondered if it was some kind of guerrilla street theater. Specifically, the tedious, annoying and embarrassing kind.
Just as I was contemplating the redundancy of the phrase “tedious, annoying and embarrassing guerrilla street theater,” it dawned on me: he must have been a member of Stop-Pub, an anti-publicité (advertising) group that got a lot of media attention in the early 2000s for defacing billboards in the Métro.
At the time, one of their more spectacular “raids” was on my local station, Notre Dame de Lorette. For about a week, until it was cleaned up, all of the posters on both platforms were covered with hastily written Stop-Pub slogans. Since I take the train there regularly, this gave me an opportunity to see what they had to say.
My impression was that their basic idea was well-founded (there is indeed a surfeit of advertising in today’s society) but that they hadn’t really thought it through. Judging from the quality and consistency of their arguments, the only requirement for the job of Stop-Pub strategist was a willingness to go to jail for vandalism.
That and a low opinion of the public’s intelligence. For them, all consommateurs (consumers) were cons-sots-mateurs (“schmucks-fools-voyeurs” — it sounds the same in French) who could be transformed into zombies, eager to squander money on things that they don’t want or need, merely by looking at, or perhaps just standing near, advertisements of any kind.
Furthermore, the protestors demonstrated a lamentable inability to draw the line between well-intentioned information and conniving commercial promotion. One of their targets at Lorette was a poster for a public-health campaign encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the escalators to get more exercise.
Someone had scrawled over it, “Deceitful message! Handicapped people can’t do that!!” It was not clear to me how that qualifies as “deceitful.” I was tempted to write under it, “Deceitful graffiti! Blind people can’t read that!!”
The Stop-Pubbers aren’t as active any more as they used to be, but I still see their self-defeating philosophy in action once in a while. A few months ago someone wrote this on the wall at Assemblée Nationale, one of the few Métro stations that has no billboards:
It’s hard to read in my blurry photo taken from the opposite platform — and even harder to read if you don’t understand French — but it could be translated as, “It’s nice to see a station with no ads!” To which the obvious reply is, “And it would be even nicer with no graffiti!”
However, it has been my experience that causes like this — more or less hopeless and involving misplaced earnestness — tend to attract a certain kind of people. I don’t want to seem callous (i.e., I want to be callous without seeming so), but, like the dude bellowing on the boulevard that night, they usually seem to be styleless, savvyless and, above all, humorless.
Which leads me to conclude that the anti-ad brigade would be unable to see the irony in their own situation: they want to ban all advertising, so to make their mission known they engage in a communication campaign targeting the public, with slogans, written messages on posters, mentions in the press and buzz on the Internet.
Gee, I wonder if there’s a single word to describe that kind of effort? Hmmm.
They even send out a latter-day town crier — the earliest form of advertising there is. Obviously, these are people who long for the good old days. And one good old day in particular: July 29, 1881.
That was when France’s famous “post no bills” law went into effect. Perhaps I should explain that French laws are usually identified by their date of enactment rather than their content. This is not the only peculiarity of the legal system here. For example, in the United States, Congress is expressly forbidden from passing an “ex post facto” law, whereas in France the word for “ski wax” is “fart.” And humor columnists are legally required to mention this at least once every winter.
In any case, as Paris headed into August that year, most public and many private buildings were emblazoned with an inscription forbidding the posting of posters and citing the statute: “Défense d’afficher – Loi du 29 juillet 1881.”
Today, most of the notices have faded to near-illegibility:
And some of them have faded to near-non-existence:
But if you look closely you can still find them all over town, often right next to the famous national motto that sums up the founding principles of the French Republic: Liberté (freedom), Egalité (equality), Fraternité (drunken hazing rituals).
Apparently, this was a much-needed law. I wonder if today’s ad-bashers know what Paris looked like back then. Before the days of radio, television, product-placement tattoos and all the other advertising media we have now, every bare vertical surface in town was considered fair game for a commercial message.
Whole sides of buildings were commonly covered with ads, some of which survive today:
So before the entire city collapsed under the weight of all that paint and paper, the authorities passed this law, heedless of its inherent contradiction: to prevent buildings from being marred by proclamations promoting chocolates, liqueurs, opera glasses, can-can binoculars, etc., they mar the buildings with the proclamation of a ban on proclamations.
This questche vingt-deux approach has become a French tradition, and not just among the mindful sheepdogs in the anti-advertising movement.
In 2011, when the Paris city officials adopted a plan to reduce the quantity of trash on the streets, the first thing they did was launch a poster campaign to let people know that littering would henceforth be punished by a €35 fine.
And where did they put the notices? You guessed it:
What better way to keep the sidewalks clean than to sully the sidewalks?
Now if only they’d crack down on noise in the street (preferably without the use of sound trucks). I’m sure it would make a lot of people deliriously happy. Or furiously angry.
Reader Kathleen Gray writes: “As ever, I was amused by your article on the foibles of the French from a long-term resident foreigner’s point of view. It reminded me of a similar campaign in the UK, where the poster banning bill-posting was worded ‘BILL STICKERS WILL BE PROSECUTED,’ under which someone had written an indignant: ‘Bill Stickers is innocent!’.”
© 2013 Paris UpdateFavorite
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