It takes a certain kind of genius to make the French fall in love with the Québécois accent. For decades, derision has been the usual reaction to the colonial twang spoken by their Canadian cousins.
Quebec-made films and TV shows routinely suffer the ignominy of being dubbed into Parisian if they want to be taken seriously. When sultry Quebec novelist Nelly Arcan appeared on France's top talk show a few years back, host Thierry Ardisson praised her work but blankly told her that her accent was what might be politely translated as a "turn-off."
Suddenly, however, the laid-back franglais and joual spoken in Quebec has become très cool to the French, thanks to an irreverent cast of bug-eyed and big-toothed animated Internet characters known as Les Têtes à claques, or Slap Heads.
Even high-brow newspaper Le Monde can't resist "these heads that often deserve to be slapped, but which mostly make us laugh to death." The 75 Têtes clips thus far produced spoof everything from those uber-hyped infomercials to the proverbial battle of the sexes and have introduced a new cast of likeable losers into the popular culture.
They have also given way to countless new expressions rendered in mostly bastard French, such as the ubiquitous " C'est pas beautiful, ça?" Rough translation: Is that awesome or what?
While it must surely pain the ears of the language police at L'Office de la langue française, neither Quebeckers nor the French can get enough of Les Têtes.
Within three months of launching his site and sending the link to only 50 friends last year, creator Michel Beaudet's tetesaclaques.tv was attracting 3.2 million unique visitors, becoming Canada's top francophone destination on the Web. Within weeks, word spread to France, and - to even Mr. Beaudet's surprise - his site was a popular and critical hit.
In short, what started out as a stay-at-home dad's hobby 15 months ago in suburban Montreal basement has become one of the hottest Internet, entertainment and advertising properties in the French-speaking world and one of the most successful examples of so-called viral marketing.
It all began with a trip to the local dollar store, where Mr. Beaudet, a seasoned veteran of Quebec's advertising industry, intended to pick up some Plasticine for an experiment in stop-motion animation, the distinctive but labour-intensive art form used in such films as Chicken Run.
Instead, he came home with a bunch of cheap dolls, began playing around by electronically superimposing his own live-action mouth and eyes on to them, and within days, Uncle Tom, la belle Cécile, le King de Val-d'Or and many others were born.
"The Têtes are a reaction to my work in the advertising industry, where the creative process is very heavy," Mr. Beaudet, 41, said of the endless focus groups advertisers require before approving a concept. "I just want to create something fast and go with my intuition for a change. It cost nothing. Just a decent computer - which I had anyway - and my time."
By January of this year, more than half of Quebeckers who went online visited the Têtes site, according to comScore Media Metrix Canada. Indeed, many employers and schools have been forced to block the site.
Needless to say, the advertisers had no problem approving the concept. Cellphone operators, starting with Bell Canada here and SFR in France, scrambled to offer exclusive content and ring tones from Les Têtes to eager subscribers.
Mr. Beaudet expected SFR, France's second-largest cellphone provider, to ask him to adapt his clips into Parisian French. But while he created new characters for the SFR's ad campaign, "the response was unanimous: Don't touch the accent." Nor the franglais. SFR's ad campaign has a Têtes website of its own called Ça va ouatcher, or That's going to be watched.
Back in Canada, in the first half of this year, Les Têtes clips topped the list of downloads on Bell Mobility phones - a first for francophone content, according to Bell spokesman Pierre Leclerc.Since then, all of Canada's cellphone companies have signed on to offer Têtes content.
Even a relatively stale brand like Pop-Tarts has experienced a surge in sales in Quebec after the Kellogg's toaster pastry was the star of an early Têtes video clip that has achieved cult status on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kellogg Canada jumped on the bandwagon this summer with a Têtes related contest. First prize was a trip to Quebec's Lac Saint-Jean region. Second prize was a year's supply of Pop-Tarts. The contest drew 19,291 entrants.
Meanwhile, Quebec juice maker Lassonde Inc. paid Mr. Beaudet to replace the grape beverage used in one clip with its Fruité brand, while convenience store operator Alimentation Couche-Tard began selling a line of Têtes juices.
French cable channel Canal Plus will begin broadcasting Têtes clips in January, while a DVD version of the first 45 capsules is being released in Quebec on Tuesday.
Both developments are part of the next phase of Mr. Beaudet's business plan. As clips go to DVD, they will be progressively withdrawn from the website. And a 30-minute TV sitcom featuring Têtes characters is also on Mr. Beaudet's drawing board.
U.S. candy maker Topps Co. recently started using Têtes-style animation in an ad for a line of lollipops, giving the English-speaking world an early taste of what is destined to become a North American-wide phenomenon when Mr. Beaudet launches a Têtes site en anglais in 2008.
By then, no doubt, even les Anglais will ouatcher ça.
Some of the most-viewed clips on http://www.tetesaclaques.tv
Le Willi Waller - 13.6 million views
Pitchman Uncle Tom sells a "super thingamajig" to peel potatoes for "four easy payments of $29.99." It is, of course, nothing more than a dollar-store potato peeler. But it created enough of a phenomenon that even Premier Jean Charest asked for one for Christmas.
Halloween - 11.8 million views
Two brothers go trick-or-treating at a house that does not have a pumpkin, nagging the occupant for candies. One boy insists. "Do you have any Pop-Tarts? Everybody has Pop-Tarts hanging around in the cupboard."
Le LCD Shovel - five million views
An infomercial for a "revolutionary apparatus that is the fruit of a long collaboration between NASA scientists and Canadian Tire." The product enables users to watch TV while they shovel snow.
Le cannibale - 4.7 million views
In the most controversial Têtes clip, a Quebec tourist couple find themselves in the "stewing pot" of a local black man that the Quebeckers call Kunta Kinte. Earlier this year, a Quebec minority rights group launched a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, but the clip remains online.
Le Body Toner - 4.4 million views
Another Uncle Tom infomercial, this one pitching a new ab-firming product called Le Body Toner. It's just a fly-swatter, but the one used in the clip was sold on eBay for $20,100. The proceeds went to Sainte-Justine Children's Hospital.