French advertising companies are often criticised for using sexual images to sell everything from designer spectacles to sweetcorn. Now, for the first time, a controversy has erupted in France over the use of sexually suggestive posters as a deterrent.
A campaign to discourage young people from smoking shows male and female teenagers kneeling in front of a man, as if being forced to have oral sex. A cigarette takes the place of the man's sexual organ. The caption reads: "Smoking is to be a slave to tobacco."
The campaign, which was devised for a pressure group supporting the rights of non-smokers, has been attacked as "scandalous" and "potentially counter-productive" by feminist and pro-family campaigners.
The advertising agency behind the posters says only a shock campaign can halt the rise in smoking amongst 13 to 15-year-olds in France.
Marco de la Fuente, the leader of the project for the BDDP et Fils ad agency, said: "The old arguments – tobacco is bad for you – don't work any more. The message here is that tobacco is a form of submission. In the popular imagination, oral sex is the perfect symbol of submission."
Gérard Audureau, the president of Les Droits des Non-fumeurs (The Rights of Non-smokers), the pressure group which commissioned the ads, said health arguments did not reach teenagers. "Young people think that they are invincible, immortal," he said. "Fear of sexual exploitation worries them more than illness."
Opposition to the ads – to be shown in bars, clubs and newspapers – has been widespread. Florence Montreynaud, of the feminist pressure group Chiennes de Garde (Guard Bitches), said that it was "inadmissible" that an image implying underage sex should be exploited, even in a good cause.
Christiane Terry, of the conservative group Familles de France, said she will lodge a complaint with the French advertising standards watchdog. "Mixing up tobacco dependence and sex is ridiculous and scandalous," she said.
Surveys suggest smoking is, overall, in decline in France but becoming more common among teenagers. The number of French 13 to 15-year-olds who smoke is estimated to have increased by 66 per cent between 2004 and 2008. Almost one in five French 16 to 20-year-olds now smokes, compared to one in 10 a decade ago. However, in the population as a whole 55 billion cigarettes were smoked in 2009, down from 97 billion cigarettes in 1991.
Last year, however, there was a slight increase – 2.6 per cent – in overall smoking as the effect of the 2008 ban on smoking in bars, cafes and restaurants began to wear off.
The non-smokers' rights group says it does not care if adults are shocked by its posters. Mr Audureau said: "Very few anti-smoking campaigns catch the attention of the young. You have to use extreme images to make them take notice."