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.
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.