Vive le footé!


If you are in the UK, there are two things that you are undoubtedly aware of at the moment: the forthcoming EU referendum and the 2016 UEFA European Championship, referred to in popular shorthand as the Euros 2016. Both events are underpinned by the relationship between the UK and its European neighbours, and both have prompted the rehearsal of well-worn stereotypes. From the perspective of this blog, the football tournament is closer to my own research interests, but explicitly not because of my (lack of) interest in the game, but because the championship takes place in France. This has provided advertisers, broadcasters, and journalists with ample scope to dust down their French-language clichés and stereotypes, and it is what these ideologies say about us, the British, that interests me most.

One particular ‘campaign’ leaps to mind, broadcast by the BBC, in the run up to the tournament. Witty, glossy, and playing directly into widely-held British tropes and imagery about France, the French, and the French language, the BBC clip has already been deemed the best ad of the week by media magazine Campaign. The BBC’s clip was devised by advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, entitled ‘Liberté, Egalité, Footé’. We’ll come to the title in a minute, but the 90-second video is set, seemingly, in Ancien Régime France, under some kind of football monarchy, with the BBC’s pundits dressed like members of the Bourbon court. The exception is French former footballer Thierry Henry, whose tricolour sash makes him look more like a post-Revolution functionary than a loyal courtier. But I am no expert in dress, and will leave commentaries on the attire to those more qualified than me.

Football 2
A screen shot of the Henri Delaunay trophy revered as it passes by in procession

I’d like to focus on the language and the other semiotic resources used by the ad agency to convey French-ness and football. The theme of the clip is the importance of the football championship whose significance is such that it should be venerated – as represented by the ranks of courtiers bowing deeply as the Henri Delaunay trophy, or more accurately a representation of it, is born majestically through the rooms of this mythical palace. Other icons of football include the klaxon and football rattle – both ornamentalized for the purposes of this clip – and the golden football atop the sceptre carried by Gary Lineker. So far, so straightforward: the beautiful game is so important that it is worthy of reverence. If we turn our attention to language, there is no speech in the clip, and the only text (in its traditional sense) visible comes at the end of the video, where the motto of the French republic appears; liberté is followed by égalité but the normal trio of concepts is disrupted with the final term: footé. We won’t dwell here on the clash between royal and republican France, with the setting and dress connoting the former and the motto the latter.

Footé is fun and memorable because it fits in with what some (but not necessarily all) know about the republican architecture of the French State. It sounds like footy in English, and alliterates with fraternité from the original French motto. Here we tap into what my colleagues Philip Seargeant and Barbara Mayor from the Open University refer to as ‘writing with a foreign accent’. Nobody thinks that footé  is French – or if they do, they need to revisit their French GCSE notes. The idea is that footé conveys a sense of French-ness, through its acute accent on the final -e, and makes the viewer – in this case – think of France. This writing with a foreign accent is something we are all used to: think of Häagen-Dazs ice cream that was an American company but whose brand name was conceived to convey the idea of Danish-ness. Places such as restaurants often draw on collective knowledge of languages and fonts to reinforce through imagery the sense and authenticity of the food they serve. We all know of a Greek restaurant that uses Greek-style lettering whilst writing in English, or an Indian restaurant that deploys a style of Brahmic scripts to underscore how Indian the food really is.

Back at the BBC, married to the images of the Court of Gary Lineker, with Gabby Logan as a twenty-first century Madame de Pompadour – Louis XV’s favourite mistress – the term footé, alongside the repeated images of tricolours, palaces akin to popular imaginings of Versailles, and powdered wigs, play with our understanding of French-ness. We remember this campaign in part because of Rio Ferdinand wearing a cream frock coat, and in part because it makes us think of football – or footé – in France, or in what our collective imagination depicts as a mash-up between football, republicanism, and France’s former royal court.


Mexicans = tequila & mariachi bands?

It might just be an impression, but it seems like Mexico has never been so widely discussed as it is at the moment. For example, one thing that many people know about Donald Trump’s bid for the Presidency of the United States of America is his attitude to Mexico: first, there is the plan for the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico, to be paid for by Mexico, and second his views on the kinds of Mexicans who migrate to the USA. Mexican cultural icons, such as sombreros, feature in the news, with talk of a ban on their distribution by the students’ union at the University of East Anglia, whilst a frat house at the University of Texas faced a formal investigation because they hosted a ‘border patrol’ party, where guests wore ponchos and construction workers hard hats featuring Spanish-sounding names. More positively, the UK and Mexico are developing increasingly close diplomatic relations following the 2015 State Visit to Britain by  President Pena Nieto.

Posters by street artist ‘Face the Strange’ in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle – photographed by Ailsa Peate

A colleague recently found two posters in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle featuring six members of a Mariachi band, identifiable by their unmistakable costumes. The artist responsible for these posters is, according to his Instagram and Facebook accounts, known as Face the Strange, whose signature motif is the replacing of heads of human forms with foodstuffs, animals, and – in this case – Mexican semiotic resources. For this poster, Face the Strange adds a short caption, “Enfrentar el extraño”, or ‘Face the other’ or ‘Confront the other’.

As can be seen, the heads of the Mariachi band members are replaced by a range of commodities associated with an idea of Mexico, namely (from left to right) tequila, a burrito, a chilli pepper, a tortilla chip, a maraca, and a cactus. There are a couple of things to consider here from a socio-linguistic or semiotic perspective. To a British audience, the Mariachi band is, in all probability, relatively widely recognised, not least courtesy of North American culture (such as the 1986 Chevy Chase & Steve Martin film ¡Three Amigos!). The ‘Mexican’ items are possibly viewed as clichés of Mexican culture, especially those identified as material culture – the tangible things that we associate with a given community. There is a tension here that is more acute in places such as Western Europe than in the Americas. In Mexico, Mariachi bands have high value; they are widely enjoyed by people from the broadest spectrum of social classes, political ideologies, and education. On this side of the Atlantic, there is a perception of cheesiness around these musicians, whose performances are dismissed as trite and staged.

Where we encounter the overlap between sombreros and a Mariachi band – plus the tortillas, cactuses, maracas, and tequila – is the consideration of these aspects of material culture as, in some way, discriminatory or stereotypical language and imagery targetting a specific group. Face the Strange’s posters are art, and not presumably intended as offensive, but the reduction of a particular group – in this case, an entire nationality – to its material culture can be subverted, as feared by the students’ union at the University of East Anglia and the University of Texas. Of course, all of us can be represented elsewhere using symbols and signs that others ascribe to us – and Scotsmen in kilts springs immediately to mind. What is curious here is the use of a Spanish-language slogan at the bottom of the poster. Spanish is not a language in wide circulation in Liverpool, even in the hip Baltic Triangle, so the extent to which the public understand the caption is probably quite limited. To this end, it is more likely that the Spanish text reinforces the Hispanic nature of the image, rather than explaining the image to its audience.