07 February 2006

What's the 411, yo?

I've been listening to On va s'gêner (heard weekdays on Europe 1) quite a bit these days, especially now that it's available as a podcast. When you listen to this daily ninety minute programme, you always seem to hear two or three amusing adverts for the telephone number 118 218, which is a Directory Assistance service in France; an equivalent of our North American 411 if you will. Hearing that advert reminded me of the 118 fiasco that I had heard them talk about on BBC Radio 4 back in 2003 without really knowing what they were talking about.

What could possibly be interesting about Directory Assistance (or Directory Enquiries as the service is known in the UK) you ask? Well, for a normal person, probably nothing. But since I'm not normal I'm going to tell you all about it.
Here in North America we dial 411 to find a telephone number. In France you would dial 12 for France Télécom's Renseignements Téléphoniques, and in the United Kingdom you would dial 192 for British Telecom Directory Enquiries. Simple. But these services, and others elsewhere in Europe were monopolies of the (former or current) state-owned telecom providers, so along came a big, bad European Directive which apparently imposed the deregulation and liberalisation of the Directory Enquiries system across the European Union, and also required that 118 be used as the standard prefix for all such services. Lotteries were held in different European countries to allocate these 118 numbers (theoretically 1000 numbers per country are possible: 118 000 to 118 999).

This was first implemented in the United Kingdom in late 2003, and apprently caused all sorts of problems, most notably higher costs and worse service for consumers. Even before the changeover and ensuing fiasco, the mourning for the old 192 service had begun. By mid-2004, there were over 120 different UK 118 numbers people could call for directory enquiries, including
118 118, whose adverts I find hilarious, malgré moi. This chappie, however, did not find them quite as hilarious, so the adverts were pulled and the concept has been reinvented as a 1970s cop show parody.

Currently, the deregulation is being implemented in France. 118 numbers are being launched and the old 12 serivice will be discontinued by spring. This is of course where my radio adverts for 118 218 come in. They have this sort of disco music in the background, and this bloke called 118 is talking to this other bloke called 218, and it's so ridiculous that I can't help but find the whole thing hilarious. Now I see they've got a website, equally hilarious telly adverts, a blog, and a real-life national TouTouYou-Tour (the chorus of the disco jingle is not so much a lyric as a sound that would be written out phonectically as 'toutouyoutou').

Both the Bristish and the French adverts seem equally ridiculous
and very similar in nature (vaguely 1970s-looking dodgy chappies with moustaches and silly sports gear doing silly things). At first I thought plagiat!, but it turns out that The Number, which runs 118 118 in the UK, and Le Numéro, which runs 118 218 in France, are the same company. It's interesting that they would use virtually the same adverts in both countries, but it seems to work. Currently, Le Numéro is taking France Télécom to court, accusing them of unfairly withholding information from their directory database and favouring their own directory enquiries service.

I find the whole whole affair, i.e. the reckless deregulation, the lotteries, the fiasco and the ridiculous adverts (not forgetting the offended distance runner) hopelessly amusing.