Papa! Nicole! Clio marks 33 years of advertising

Renault’s marketing chief Arnaud Belloni, reminisces about three decades’ worth of car commercials.
Matt Robinson
Matt Robinson

Published on September 15, 2023

What makes a truly great car advert? Is it Paula Hamilton, flouncing about in a fur coat and driving off in a Mk2 Volkswagen Golf? Or is it Emory Leeson's memorable 'Volvo: they're boxy, but they're good' slogan from the movie Crazy People?

Or is it, in fact, getting a great, long-running and iconic string of adverts together that still, to this day, elicit people to give you the correct 'call-and-response' answer to a single word? For instance, if we were to say to you 'Papa', we'll give you whatever odds you like that you immediately reply with: "Nicole!"

Believe it or not, the Renault Clio is 33 years old. To celebrate this milestone, the French company invited its global chief marketing officer, Arnaud Belloni, to reminisce about some of the best advertising campaigns that have been used to market the car across Europe during the past third of a century.

16 million Clios, and counting

Of course, they must have been pretty successful - the Clio is France's best-selling model, with more than 16 million units and counting, shifted over the years - but when Belloni is waxing lyrical about the syntactically challenging 'It's got everything of a great car' campaign or mentioning a long-forgotten Transformers-related effort in the early days, it's hard for your mind not to wander to thoughts of Estelle Skornik (Nicole) and her long-running double act with Max Douchin (Papa).

Although they seemed to run forever, and therefore you might be thinking there were about 50 different episodes, there were only eight adverts in the Papa and Nicole series, with one annually every year from 1991 to 1998 inclusive. If you're interested in English, they were titled Interesting (1991), The Meeting (1992), Skiing (1993), Transformation (1994), Mum (1995), Moved On (1996), Parallel Lives (1997) and then The Wedding (1998) - with the last of these the famous skit on The Graduate's end sequence, here featuring Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

However, if the rule of advertising is to get people to buy your product rather than simply be memorable, the question you have to ask yourself is: did I go out and buy a Renault Clio with my own money on the strength of these ads, or did I really just fancy Estelle Skornik? It's a tricky conundrum.

Incidentally, you might also be something of a closet Robert Palmer fan, because seven of the eight Papa and Nicole Clio adverts were underscored by Renault's chosen theme music of the 1990s... an adaptation of Palmer's track Johnny and Mary. The exception was 1996's Moved On, which instead used the chilled-out grooves of Soul II Soul's Keep On Movin', one of the band's two biggest hits sung by vocalist Caron Wheeler.

Va-Va-Voom? Not so much, Thierry

Honestly, since then, we have to confess Clio adverts have passed us by. Obviously, there was the Thierry Henry era, when the Arsenal and France striker played up the little Renault's levels of 'Va-Va-Voom', but it never had the staying power of Papa and Nicole.

And so, returning to Belloni's thoughts, perhaps it's best to let him try and explain why some advert campaigns work and others don't: "Clio has achieved iconic status on roads as much as on screens. In these past 33 years of advertising, it has attracted a huge amount of love, across five generations, and that love is still there. Most of these films that have made a lasting impression on me have one thing in common: their sense of humour."

L'Amour! The music is key... and the secret?

But maybe it's the music, too. The Clio has, over the years, been advertised in various countries not just with Robert Palmer and Soul II Soul tracks but also a breathy, acoustic version of Oasis' Wonderwall, as well as The Buggles' signature tune Video Killed The Radio Star and even Erasure's Oh L'Amour, which plays over the latest advert featuring the Clio E-Tech 145 hybrid; the irony of an English band singing a song with French in it, being chosen to advertise a French product, is not lost on us, by the way.

And to round this up, the 33-year look back on Clio advertising prompts Belloni to say a new commercial will be coming out in December this year to mark the milestone, with a 'carte-blanche commission' from Belgian rap artist Scylla. It's bound to be pretty spectacular and youthful, of that, there's no doubt.

Hey-ho. It's not going to be the new Papa and Nicole, is it?