Why do people in France say they are Sam when they are called Jacques?

A TV campaign to curb drink-driving led to people calling themselves Sam on a Saturday night

Party-goers in France might ask ‘Who is going to be Sam tonight?’; in adverts, Sam is usually represented by a smiling cartoon head
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You might be surprised to hear a French person refer to themselves as ‘Sam’ for the evening (especially when their name is Jacques). We explain why.

A designated driver (conducteur désigné) is colloquially known as ‘Sam’ in France – the identity given to a fictional character introduced in a 2005 government campaign to curb drink-driving.

Read more: Dashcams: do French courts and insurance firms accept the images?

Why choose the name ‘Sam’?

The campaign was inspired by an earlier one in Belgium based on a character called Bob, and was aimed at 18 to 24-year-olds, the demographic most affected by deaths from drink-driving.

“Sam: the one who drives is the one who does not drink” was the accompanying slogan, and you will still hear people in France say “I’m Sam tonight” to denote an evening of sobriety.

Pierre Nabhan, director of brand consultancy agency Joosnabhan, which came up with the moniker, said: “The name Sam stood out because it applied to several situations in daily life.

“Sam is a unisex diminutive that can refer to either Samuel or Samantha. It is also close to the expressions ca m’va and ca m’dit [‘It suits me’], and borrows the first letters of samedi [Saturday – a hint of weekend partying].”

Read more: Five things they do not tell you about partying in France

502 young people died on the road last year

In adverts, Sam is usually represented by a smiling cartoon head superimposed over that of an actor.

However, recent TV campaigns have dropped the ‘mask’ to focus on the real faces of people who take turns to look after their friends for the night.

The success of the Sam campaign in reducing drink-driving deaths has not been studied.

Road deaths steadily declined from the 2000s to 2010s, with the annual total plateauing at around 3,000 to 3,500 since 2013, except during the pandemic.

Some 502 young people died in 2023, according to official statistics, the second lowest number since 2010, apart from in 2020.

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