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'The names have been changed to protect the guilty'

About the author
Frederic Beigbeder’s book '99 francs' (subsequently republished as 14.99 euros) was a huge success in France. His message to openDemocracy readers is: ‘Fight the power!’
£9.99£9.99 by Frederic Beigbeder
Frederic Beigbeder – Are you sure it’s my evening? Oh great! Well, I apologise for my accent, but if you hate the French accent, then you shouldn’t be here! Okay, I’m drunk. [Takes up book, which has been provided and begins to read without a noticeable change of tone.]

My name is Octave and I’m dressed from head to foot in Tom Ford. I’m an advertising executive; yup, that’s right, I pollute the universe. I’m the guy who sells you shit [‘Sorry!’] Who makes you dream of things you’ll never have. The sky’s always blue, the girls are never ugly, perfect happiness touched up on Photoshop. Immaculate images, in-yer-face music. When, after painstaking [‘painstaking? painstacking’] saving, you manage to buy the car of your dreams (the one I shot in my last campaign), I will already have made it look out of date.

I’m three trends ahead [‘As you can see’], and I make sure you’re always frustrated. Glamour is a country that no one ever gets to. [‘Except me of course!’] I intoxicate you with new things, and the advantage with the new is that it never stays new for long. There are always new things to make the last lot look old. I want to make you drool. [‘What does it mean…drool? Ah! baver…baver. Thank you Adriana – she’s a very good translator! Where is this shy translator? Ah! A BIG ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR THE TRANSLATOR’. Applause.] I want to make you drool – that’s my vocation. No one in my profession actually wants you to be happy, because happy people don’t spend.

Your suffering boosts sales. In our own jargon we call this the ‘post-purchase downer’. There’s some product that you just have to have, but as soon as you’ve got it there’s something else you have to have. Hedonism isn’t humanism; it’s cash flow. What does it say? ‘I spend, therefore I am.’ But in order to create a need I have to arouse jealousy, pain and dissatisfaction: they are my weapons. And my target…is you. [‘Do I continue, or is it boring?’ I’m fishing for compliments.’ Cries of ‘No, no!’ and ‘yes, yes!’ ‘Beg me if you want me to continue. Okay, okay, no more of that!’ Beigbeder continues.]

Frederic BeigbederFrederic Beigbeder
I spend my life lying to you, and I’m paid a shed-load for it. I earn around £12K a month (excluding the expenses, the company car, the stock options and the golden parachute). I should say 19,440 euros really, because I would look richer. Still, do you know many guys earning this much at my age? I manipulate you and they give me the new Mercedes SLK (the one with the roof which slides automatically into the boot) or the BMW Z8 or the Porsche Boxster or the Mazda MX5. (Personally, I’m a sucker for the BMW Z8 roadster: the aerodynamic aesthetics of its bodywork combined with the grace and power of its straight six-cylinder engine producing 400 bhp and giving a 0 to 60 time of 5.4 seconds. Better still, the thing looks like a giant suppository, just right for giving the world one up the arse). [‘Very sorry for this vulgar bit.’]

I interrupt your films on TV to bombard you with my logos, and they give me a holiday in St Barths or Phuket or St Moritz. I bang on and on at you with my slogans in your favourite magazines, and they offer me a chateau in the Perigord or a manor house in Gloucestershire [‘I think it isn’t pronounced like this?’ To murmurs of approval, his pronunciation is corrected.] …or a villa in Tuscany or a condo in Aspen or a palace in Morocco or a catamaran in the Caribbean or a yacht in St Tropez. I’m everywhere. [‘Mmm – I’m everywhere; in French, je suis partout, is the name of a collaborationist newspaper during the war.’]

You’ll never get away from me. Wherever you look, you’ll find one of my ads centre stage. I forbid you to be bored. I stop you thinking. The terrorist cult of the new helps me to sell empty space. Ask any surfer: to stay on the surface you have to have a gap, a pocket of air, underneath you. Surfing is just sliding over an abyss (whiz-kids on the Internet know that as well as the Malibu champions). I decree what is True, what is Beautiful and what is Good. I cast the models who’ll be giving you a hard-on in six months’ time. I plaster their images in so many places that you call them supermodels; these young girls of mine will traumatise every woman over fourteen. You idolise my choices. This winter, you’ve got to have breasts up above your shoulders and a seriously underpopulated pussy. [‘Sorry, I’m not laughing at my work. I’m laughing because it is the first time I read it in English, in front of people…I’m laughing at myself, in fact.’] The more I play with your subconscious, the more you obey me. If I sing the praises of a new yoghurt on the walls of your town, I can guarantee that you’re going to buy it. You think you’ve got your own free will, but sooner or later you’ll recognise my product on a supermarket shelf and you’ll buy it, just like that, just to taste it. Believe me. I know my job.

labels 1
… It’s very interesting. We don’t know each other, but we have written almost the same books at the same time in two different countries. So it shows that there is a new Power and, of course, writers will want to analyse or describe it, because there is a tradition in England, as in France, of satire – making fun of the Power! Maybe that explains why in two places as very different as France and England – who hate each other – two young boys, very handsome, started to write about this subject.

But there are a few differences – in the tone.

That’s the difference between England and France. In France we are very paranoid, very serious, and we get angry very quickly. In England, you are more understated, more introverted and…more elegant. My book is more premier degre! A bit too naive, too sincere.

I was angry, as I explain in the book, because I am scared of this new power. I think it can be dangerous. A bunch of stupid, cynical people governing the planet can be scary. Also, even if I’m wrong about this, my personal experience was such that I could not go on selling all my great ideas to my clients, so I was rather frustrated at the time.

labels 2
In France (huh, it’s difficult, my English is so terrible) but we hate Americans because they saved us – you know? We feel guilty because they saved us. It’s stupid. I prefer Patrick Jouvet [sings in falsetto] ‘I love America!’ because in a way we are very much influenced by American writers.

My book is much influenced by American culture, because I think Americans criticise themselves a lot more than the French do. In a film such as American Beauty or a book such as Fight Club, they really are very violent and subversive against themselves. So that’s the good part of America.

Of course, globalisation is very American, because the huge companies and the big brands are American, and their job is to colonise the world. That’s what they are for: making money, selling products, and invading everywhere else. If we criticise this capitalist system, sometimes we have to criticise America. That’s where the money is.

As the book begins, Octave is very annoyed by a meeting in which his client asks him why he wants to use humour. So Octave says, ‘Well, it’s good for you, it makes people laugh, it creates interest and bla, bla, bla.’ He gives an example, ‘For example, people pay good money to go into a cinema and see a comic film.’ To which the client replies, ‘But they don’t then eat the film.’

This happened in real life to me, and I remember thinking on that day that this particular chap had no respect for the consumer at all. He was full of contempt. So, this man is dangerous, he is my enemy, I hate him; what can I do? The answer is, nothing. Because the client always has the last word in advertising. He has the power. So I had to shut my mouth; and then I developed stomach problems. So, that’s why I wrote my book. Because I think, in life, it’s important to avoid stomach problems.

ethic-eze"Ethic-eze" (click for bigger image)
Well, I am a consumer, and we all live in this consumer society. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just the reality, the same as globalisation. I always find anti-globalisation such an absurd quest – because globalisation is with us. We have to make it more social, more just, sure. But it’s here.

So, no, I don’t hate the consumer. But, there is no doubt that we are not sufficiently aware of our power as consumers to change the world. We can boycott some brands, and punish this man who wants consumers to obey his requirements and that’s it. We can punish him, and then, instead of me, it can be him that is fired from his company, if everybody turns elsewhere for their next purchase. Am I making myself clear?

I think money is not a goal – it’s not my only goal in life. It’s a way of doing things. Sometimes, I feel sad that it has become the only Utopia for people, just to have more money than their neighbour. But then again, if this has been the situation since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s good news – better, at any rate, than the alternative!

Today, our appearance is more important than what we are. And this is the consequence of advertising. For fifty years, we have been telling the masses that in order to be happy, you have to look like Claudia Schiffer, or whoever. And it has consequences on the way people judge each other.

Maybe that’s why we writers don’t have to describe people, as Balzac did, for pages and pages. We need only say ‘Okay, he’s dressed in Gucci’, and then you know it’s someone you want to slap in the face, but also someone who you envy and admire and hate at the same time. So, it’s a short cut description…but it’s also very stupid.

Much of the book is autobiographical. But, of course, Octave is completely crazy. I am mad also, but maybe not so mad. For example, I never took four grams of cocaine a day, because I didn’t have enough money to do that. [Laughter.]

Anyway, the comparison with the Nazis is just a historical fact. In the 1930s, the Nazis used advertising. It was called propaganda. But they were very good at it. They used the best artists of the time: Leni Riefenstahl, Albert Speer. They used the radio and the cinema, and invented the advertisers’ short sentence. And it worked – it had a strong effect on their sympathisers.

I use this comparison only to show that, in the past, advertising has been very effective and very dangerous. So, when happy, smiling advertising people say ‘Oh, no! We’re relaxed, cool, not at all fascist. People are free to buy what they want. We are just public relations experts with more money…’ – I just use this example.

Some countries do control advertising. Sweden, I think, forbids advertising to children. In France, there’s a law against advertising cigarettes and alcohol, and I think it’s positive. But I’m not asking for a prohibition of advertising. I’m just saying, ‘Isn’t it too much?’ Maybe it’s time to think about it.

Advertising wants to invade all spaces, including schools, because children are fragile and vulnerable, and can be brainwashed more easily. So, there are Pepsi schools in the States, and I think L’Oreal offers a CD Rom to help you learn a language. Pepsi has chosen a blue colour, which means that whenever children see this colour blue, they think, Pepsi!

It’s very dangerous. And it is very difficult to resist because they are always giving away free gifts, as you know. So it is: ‘Well, we want to help the children, and to teach them. We offer them computers. We sponsor the school. We are helping you. We’re nice people….’ In France, Colgate has offered teaching kits to show children how to brush their teeth, which is very useful, because otherwise you have to remind your children all day long, ‘Brush your teeth!’ So, Colgate can help me raise my child!

subvertA 'subvert' from Adbusters
Fifteen years ago, I travelled a lot and people seemed to be very different in different countries. Now, if I go to your apartment and open the fridge, it might be that I find the same products as the ones in my fridge at home. That’s new.

Maybe there is an explanation! Because, we have come to the end of ideologies, and they have been replaced by a new religion, which is brands and products. People used to wear a cross; now it’s a Nike logo. Nature abhors a vacuum. We all need to believe in something. We need to have dreams, to hope for something. Advertising has occupied this empty place and maybe we think we are going to be happy because we look like an ad. It’s crazy, but that is actually the situation.

What’s interesting is that advertisers will always explain that what they need to do – such as spying on people’s private lives, who they talk to and what products they like, over the Internet, or with cameras in the shopping mall, or via the mobile phone – is all to help you. So, Orwell was right.

I think, by our work, we can open the eyes of some readers, and maybe they will look at the world in a different way. If only one reader changes their perspective, this justifies our efforts, doesn’t it?…

This shows that we are so weak in front of these companies – that even if we hate their advertising, we still obey their ‘orders’. I’m like that too. I don’t like Danone. But, I like Danette!

And we are all full of these contradictions. I think we’re becoming completely schizoid. We are at the same time fascinated and disgusted by this world. And we feel very guilty about it, because in other countries people are starving, and we are very lucky to be in rich countries. And we continue to buy these products, knowing that they think we are shit! I don’t know how to escape that.

It’s difficult. How can you express yourself in this world, without looking like a logo? Myself and Matt – even we are products, and you can buy our books in stores…. So, it’s endless. And it’s funny. When Naomi Klein launched her book in Paris, Sonia Rykiel, the designer, put the book in her window – so there was No Logo with clothes by Sonia Rykiel all around it! That sums up our civilisation.

'casseurs de pub'A 'subvert' from Casseurs de Pub
You may know of the Canadian movement ‘Adbusters’… In France, where it is called ‘Casseurs de Pub’, I worked with some crazy French adbusters – on a short 30-second cartoon of Planet Earth, which we see eating more and more cars and getting fatter and fatter and warmer and warmer, until it dies. At the end, we say, there is no room for all these cars and so on. There wasn’t a single television channel that would agree to air this film. It was under blanket censorship. We can show it in meetings like tonight, but it is not allowed on television. So, control exists.

I’m paranoid about many things, but I’m not really worried about ‘subliminal’; many studies suggest that it doesn’t really work. I’m more scared about the effect of films we really do see!

… After all, Ian Fleming didn’t get paid for the brands he peppered his texts with, whereas these people do. I quoted heaps of brands in my book, but unfortunately, I wasn’t paid for them!

In France, a guy called Jean-Claude made a fortune with another very simple idea. He went to see the mayors of all the big cities, and said ‘I will offer you free bus stops. You don’t have to use taxpayers’ money for that any more. I will give you them.’ So now all these streets carry his bus-stop advertising. It’s always free – that’s why it’s so tempting, of course.

But you know, sometimes, there is hope. Take, for example, mobile phones. In Spain it did work, but in France it didn’t. They gave people free mobile phones, but constantly interrupted by advertising. And people were disgusted. It was too much for them. They preferred to pay. So, sometimes it doesn’t work.

[With growing conviction.] Er, to this pretty young person who was asking if there wasn’t a single day when I felt proud of being part of one of these really famous companies, one day when I enjoyed working there… [expectant pause] … I did learn one thing from advertising: make short sentences! Maybe that’s why I will stop now.

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