REFERENDUM FILE

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

Quebecers’ view of themselves does not always match the reality

NANCY WOOD October 20 1992
REFERENDUM FILE

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

Quebecers’ view of themselves does not always match the reality

NANCY WOOD October 20 1992

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

REFERENDUM FILE

Quebecers’ view of themselves does not always match the reality

The scene from the television show is steamy. Hockey star Pierre Lambert has just fallen into bed with a beautiful young woman. His hand moves up her calf and then over her thigh. He promises to take her everywhere he goes: “Toronto, Boston, Los Angeles...” He kisses her stomach and gazes up longingly over her naked breast—naked, that is, in the French version of the series Lance et compte. In the English version, He Shoots, He Scores, the same giggling actress is clad in a solid-looking brassiere. The prime-time nudity is a vivid sign of the differences between viewers and consumers in Quebec and those in English Canada. “Quebecers are different in so many ways that it is hard to know where to start,” said François Descarie, director of the Montreal market research firm Impact Research. “It is cultural. It is consumption. It is political. It is historical.”

The difference is also found in the particular—sometimes peculiar—taste that Quebecers have for certain foods and beverages. They

drink 45 per cent of the V-8 juice consumed in Canada, and do so, says Adam Seston, the brand manager for Campbell Soup Co. Ltd., because “the palate is different in Quebec. In Quebec, the number one reason to drink V-8 is taste; in Ontario, it’s nutrition.” Quebecers have an image of themselves as more funloving, sexier, more open-minded, modem and more European. And advertisers zero in on that self-impression. “Quebecers have a lot of joie de vivre,” says pollster Marcel Léger, once a Parti Québécois cabinet minister. “When they eat, they take pleasure in it; when they buy something, they enjoy doing so. They are emotional and sensitive, and consuming is just another pleasure in life.”

But that popular self-image does not always match the reality of Quebecers’ consumption habits and lifestyles. Quebecers do have unique pleasures and preferences. But sometimes, as a survey of advertising agencies that operate in the province shows, those differences are less exotic than Quebecers themselves believe:

FAST FOOD GOURMETS

Many Quebecers see themselves as epicures, delighting in food that is properly prepared and well-presented while buying fewer generic, or “no-name,” brands. Quebecers consume more imported cheese and red wine than most other Canadians. And they buy more yogurt and less sour cream than English Canadians. Léger explains that the quest for status food and drink may be a way for Quebecers to assert their independence. “When you are walking through that shopping mall on a Saturday, it is the one time that you can be the boss,” he says. “You can buy whatever you want— the best.”

But marketing research shows that Quebecers’ supermarket buying habits are, on the whole, a little less than gourmet. They buy more packaged cookies, instant coffee, snack food and muffin mixes than the Canadian average. And, while they may have a taste for imported cheese, they also eat more processed cheese slices than the Canadian average. There are also a few unexplained quirks: Que-

becers consume more than the national average of dried pasta and tomato paste. And the vast majority of the beer sold in Quebec is ale, while in the rest of the country, beer drinkers overwhelmingly prefer lager.

Favorite comfort foods in Quebec are often such old-fashioned standards as pork ‘cretond or ‘rillettes,' both mild spreads that are eaten at breakfast or lunch. The popularity of hot chicken sandwiches might account for the remarkably high sales of dry gravy mixes and canned peas, the dish’s traditional accompaniment. And, while Quebecers downplay the importance of poutine—an artery-clogging mélange of french fries, curd cheese and hot gravy—in their daily lives, the dish is on the menu of most fast-food restaurants. It is hard to find a Quebecer who has not tried poutine at least once—however guiltily. Like barbecue chicken before it, which originated as a fast food in Quebec and spread to the world, poutine is now available in English Canada too.

THE WILD LIFE OF COUCH POTATOES

Polls show that Quebecers consider themselves to be outgoing bon vivants, but one poll conducted by L’actualité magazine in January showed that they actually spend more time at home watching television than most English Canadians. And while many people still sit down to watch American programs dubbed into French, now almost 90 per cent of the most popular shows in Quebec are homegrown, from Montreal, PQ, which began this fall, to last year’s phenomenally successful Les filles de Caleb. And shows such as Lance et compte—prime-time soap operas, or téléromans as they are known in Quebec—have always generated intense followings. Says Louise Cousineau, the TV critic for the French Language daily La Presse: “The téléroman is really our form of popular literature. It has been for decades.” So strong is the attraction that Impact Research avoided polling while Les filles de Caleb was on the air, a time when up to 60 per cent of adult Quebecers were glued to their sets and resentful of interruptions. “We really had to stop caking on that night of the week,” said Descarie. “We would not have dared.”

In fact, Quebecers watch more television than other Canadians—27 hours a week on average—and read fewer books. In the L’actualité study, 37 per cent of Quebecers, compared to 15 per cent in the rest of Canada, said that they had not read a book in the last six months. And despite the higher cost of French books (a popular paperback can easily cost $30, mostly because the press run for French language books is much smaller than that for those in English), only two per cent of respondents to a Quebec government survey cited price as an obstacle to reading. Most explained

that they were not interested or did not have enough time to read.

There are other lifestyle oddities, as wek. Quebecers give less to charity than other Canadians, and buy more lottery tickets— $190 for every man, woman and chkd, according to Loto-Quebec statistics for the year ending March 31, 1992. They make only half as many long-distance telephone caks as other Canadians. Quebecers also smoke more than other Canadians, and buy more life insurance.

Once chided for filling their large cars with premium gasoline—even when it was not necessary—Quebecers are now among North America’s largest consumers of imported, smak and inexpensive cars. But they retain a special affection for such macho North Ameri-

can favorites as the Camaro and the Firebird. General Motors officials say that, partly for that reason, they have awarded production of the latest generation of those cars to their Ste.Thérèse plant north of Montreal.

CELEBRITY CULTURE

Regular Pepsi-Cola been the major-selling soft drink in Quebec since the mid-1980s. But whke Engksh Canadian television audiences watch American singer Ray Charles promote Pepsi as the right thing, Quebecers get the pitch from local comedian Claude Meunier, part of the much-loved duo of Ding et Dong, whose fast-paced caricatures have a distinctive appeal. Said Joseph Mukie, director of the Association of Quebec Advertising Agencies: “Quebecers have developed ads for Quebecers and they use the local idiom and the local humor and the plays on words.”

Other Quebec celebrities to endorse products include singer Céline Dion, impressionist André-Phihppe Gagnon and actress Marina Orsini, who stars in both Les filles de Caleb and Lance et compte. “The cult of the celebrity is overdeveloped here,” says Descarie. “You can have someone like [comedian] Yvon Deschamps play hundreds of sold-out shows, and the play, Broue, has been on for 13 years now. These are phenomena

which make you wonder what is going on here. I don’t know how many fan magazines there are in Engksh Canada, but we have about seven here just for our own Quebec celebrities.”

Advertisers often operate on the assumption that Quebecers are more emotional, and less rational, than Enghsh-Canadians in their response to ads. Commercials are less likely to detak the advantages of a certain product than they are to excite or amuse viewers with colorful, fast-paced images. And whke humor helps sek in Quebec, so does a more explicit appeal to sexuahty. Quebecers may, in fact, be more permissive than other Canadians. A recent pok of attitudes showed that 46 per cent of Quebec respondents found it acceptable for 15year-olds to have sex, compared to only 30 per cent in the rest of Canada. And Quebecers claim to be more tolerant of extramarital affairs: whke 79 per cent of them said that extramarital affairs were a grave concern, that concern in the rest of Canada was 10 points higher, 89 per cent.

Television producers and advertising agencies clearly take their cues from such attig tudes. They respond on TV g with more revealing primetime shots, such as the bared breast in Lance et compte.

, “You should see ak the new o téléromans: there are bare ¡2 breasts everywhere,” says Descarie. “It is almost as if they are showing them to set the tone, or create a certain atmosphere.” That tone extends to commercials and magazine ads. A recent Benetton ad, for one, featuring multicolored condoms, ran in only one Canadian province: Quebec. And a very leggy ad for Dim pantyhose, which was puked down from bus shelters in Toronto because of complaints that it was degrading to women, was barely remarked on in Montreal. “It is not as though no one ever complains in Montreal,” says Descarie. “But we might get one complaint for every 10 in Toronto. I do not even remember what the Dim woman looked like, it was so innocuous.” Whatever the contradictions between Quebecers’ self-image and their actual behavior, the important fact remains that Quebecers believe that they are different from other Canadians. They characterize themselves as more Latin in temperament and hberal in attitude. But even Quebecers have difficulty explaining ak aspects of their character. Says Descarie: “Sometimes, I think Quebec society is a kttle like an adolescent—it wants to please, it wants to rebel; it says ‘yes’ one day, ‘no’ the next.” Perhaps, the young marketing executive added: “We want to be different just for the sake of being different. How do you explain it?” Then, with a sigh bom of someone whose income depends on trying to resolve those contradictions, he added: “I am a Quebecer—and I have trouble.”

NANCY WOOD in Montreal