PERHAPS it was only a matter of time. Since the first apple vendor at market sang the praises of his fruit, advertising a product has grown more and more sophisticated. The practice matured through the centuries, adding promises, wild claims, and, lately, signals carefully crafted to trigger the buying impulse.
Now, in France, a nation that redefines sophistication almost every day, advertising has been loosed from its crass, commercial roots and officially elevated to the rarified realm of the arts.
That's right, art.
``It contributes to the formation of the spirit of our time,'' explains Culture Minister Jack Lang. ``It allows the passer-by, the reader, the viewer to perceive the echoes of modern times.''
``It's the crucible of all the arts,'' says advertising executive Jacques Seguela, listing music, photography, and the other disciplines that go into an ad campaign.
``Personally, I adore it, so I'm not a good judge,'' says Martine Sussfeld, director of France's up-and-coming Museum of Advertising.
The nation has not really lost its cultural compass, but it does have a tendency to find and officially recognize artistic creativity in some nontraditional places. Last year, for example, France made comedian Jerry Lewis a ``commander of arts and letters.''
Talk of art and advertising in the same sentence probably reflects a French weakness for the grandilo-quent. It also reveals a country that takes aesthetics seriously. The good commercials here are bright, glossy, and just plain entertaining; the French audience is willing and unashamed to sit back and savor them.
``Within the entire [French] industry, from conception of an ad down to the production . . . everyone thinks of himself as an artist rather than a businessman,'' says Tina Schiefelbein, an American account director in the Paris office of Ogilvy and Mather. ``Most agencies in the US take themselves to be a real business.''
While an American audience responds better to a straight, informative business pitch, Ms. Schiefelbein says, the French are more disposed to appreciate good photography or a creative scenario. ``You can't tell somebody how to do something in France as much as you can charm them into doing it,'' she says.
Indeed, the French are not averse to being charmed.
Television viewers turn off their sets after the commercials; moviegoers arrive well before showtime to see the big-screen commercials, which may run a full half hour. ``La publicit'e'' is a welcome part of the show. It even has a nickname: ``La pub.''
Television advertising is a fairly young industry in France. Only in 1968 did the government allow regular TV commercials. In those turbulent times, as student radicals took to the streets, advertising was branded as an evil arm of an evil, capitalist system.
``Then there was a sort of awakening,'' says Jean Feldman, president of Feldman, Calleux, & Partners. ``The French today know that the economy is something important . . . and inside the economy there is advertising.'' As the awareness grew, the ad folks embarked on what Mr. Feldman calls ``a concerted effort to create `masterpieces.' ''
In 1979, Mr. Seguela, of Roux, Seguela, Cayzac, & Goudard, wrote a book called, ``Don't Tell My Mother I'm in Advertising, She Thinks I'm a Piano Player in a Brothel.'' He marks a change in the French attitude toward advertising in 1981. That was when he developed one of France's first sophisticated campaigns for a political candidate. Franois Mitterrand, running again for president, was trailing in the polls.
``The calm force'' was the slogan, and Seguela says solemnly that, in adopting the campaign, Mr. Mitterrand ``ennobled advertising.'' Seguela says the commercials were successful because they were imaginative and emotive and did not get bogged down in trying to sell the Mitterrand political philosophy.
French advertising executives are proud of their imaginative powers, which they say set them apart from their counterparts in the United States. After brief tributes to the pioneers of American advertising, leaders of the French ad industry make it clear they do not think much of current American commercials. US agencies, they say, have too many cautious executives with business degrees, who spend too much time pretesting their campaigns and pay too much attention to justifying their products.
Good advertisements in France can certainly be dazzling.
A recent issue of the weekly magazine Le Point carried a four-page centerfold for the IBM personal computer: The familiar Charlie Chaplin figure on the front promised a surprise inside. Turning the page revealed a picture of the computer, fitted with tiny lights that started blinking and a small chip that beeped out the first few bars of Beethoven's ``F"ur Elise.'' IBM paid for 275,000 copies of the astonishing ad: They cost about $2 each.
One of Seguela's current commercials for a sporty compact Citr"oen Visa GTI shows the car speeding down the flight deck of the French aircraft carrier Cl'emenceau and keeping pace with a fighter jet. As the jet takes off, the car somersaults off the edge and plunges into water, only to emerge seconds later perched on a surfacing submarine. Seguela sought permission from President Mitterrand himself for use of military equipment.
Some campaigns would be considered risqu'e by US standards; French feminists grumble at a bare-breasted woman, but the ad raises few eyebrows in the audience.
The latest ads often feature in dinner conversation. Daily newspapers feed the talk with features explaining the special effects in commercials, or interviews with the leaders of the field.
Amid all the ingenuity and interest comes the Museum of Advertising -- ironic as it is for a Socialist government to honor such a capitalist pursuit. Until a few years ago, the Museum of Advertising was nothing more than the museum of posters. Then Mr. Lang, the culture minister, declared his support for commercial culture.
The collection remains mostly posters, but Lang has announced that the museum is to move from its current location, a turn-of-the-century porcelain store, to much larger quarters, with a wider and nobler mission. There are plans for exhibits on packaging, fashion commercials, and French illustrators. The new museum will include advertising archives, films, and recordings.
``Like all museums, the Museum of Advertising has the vocation of conservation, that is, of guardian of the advertising heritage,'' Mrs. Sussfeld, the museum's director says in a pamphlet describing her plans.
And there will be a library of advertising books and documents, as well as facilities for advertising people to gather for conferences and seminars. ``It should be a platform for debates and dialogues on all issues relating to advertising,'' Sussfeld writes. It will be, she says, the only one of its kind in the world.
But none of this answers the central question about art. Is advertising really art? Lang's enthusiasm was clear when he announced plans to expand the museum: ``I love commercials. They are attractive and ingenious. The graphics are of quality. Yes, it's art.''
Sussfeld says she uses a simple guiding principle to weigh the issue. ``I really consider it an art form, because it's a form of creativity,'' she says.
``Well,'' she adds, ``of course, not all of it.''