Russia, April 19, 1999
Now, not even Russia is free from Coke commercials!
|Over the last few days, I've watched an interesting
structure take shape on the plaza near my house. At first, workers
welded together a large metal triangle, then a second one, and finally
separated the two with vertical metal bars. I though it might be a new
kiosk, there are so many popping up in Moscow these days, but it was on
a traffic island that not many people walk through. Then, in the middle
of the triangle a tall pole appeared and the design of the structure
became quite intriguing. That was until yesterday.
Now, rising from the middle of the square is nothing other than a giant rotating Coke billboard! I'm not in shock at the actual structure, these massive obliques to commercialism are all over the city, but the audacity to put one right in the middle of 'my' square shocked me so much I have to write about the state of this Reklama Nation!
Old-timers tell of a time, before 1991, when Moscow was completely devoid reklamie (advertisements). Where stores rarely had any signs outside to denote what they sold, mainly because they never really had anything to sell. I can barely envision such a city. When I lived in Ryazan, I did notice that there were very few ads, but I though that was just the difference between Moscow and the provinces.
After the rise of this very Russian form of capitalism, there are reklamie everywhere! You literally can't open your eyes on any downtown street without being visually assaulted by Coke, Phillips, Bayer, LG, and all kinds of foreign and Russian cigarette ads. There are ads in all the usual places, buses, bus stops, billboards, and store fronts, but then it gets weird. There is a reklama on every lamppost leading to and from the Kremlin, there is a reklama on every flat space in the Metro, and there was even a reklama on the Mir space station!
I can see the value the Moscow government, and private owners, find in selling places to ad agencies. I'm sure the city charges a few rubles for the giant Lipton sign on the top of the House of Artists, but I wander if they haven't gone a little to far. If you look at the photos on my website, only the shots I've taken outside of Moscow, or inside an apartment, don't have at least one reklama in the background. One of the reasons I left America is because advertisers there had implanted too many 'Coke is it!' jingles in my lead.
I remember an enlightening speech I went to in Washington DC, where the orator spoke just in ad jingles, about the emptiness of modern life. I don't remember the actual words, though I know I've heard them all before, but I do remember walking out of the hall with a new look at the concept of mind control. What is the difference between subliminal signals to tell us to kill enemies of the state, and those telling us Gillette is the best a man can get? Luckily, the radio/TV ads are in Russian here, so I don't notice them as much, but the visual signs are getting overwhelming.
Russians were one of the last people to be free of this consumer imprinting, and the ones I know who grew up before 1991 have an amazing outlook on life I envy. They do not know that they live on Planet Reebok, or that Pepsi is the Choice of the Next Generation, or that they should Just Do It with Nike. They live an uncomplicated lifestyle where quality and connections matter. Where a home-cooked meal (not a Lean Cuisine frozen dinner), from hand-grown produce (not Birdseye frozen vegetables), with good friends (not an ER episode), is the best way to spend an evening.
These are the people I left America to find, and I am saddened that the kids of Russia today, after the stimuli of a thousand million reklamie, know Calvin Klein's Obsession, that Menthos is the freshmaker, and There is Only One Jeep. I just hope they lean how to Think Different without an Apple reklama to tell them.
Check it out! Now I'm an inspiration!
The Times (UK) April 26 1999 Advertising in Russia
By Anna Blundy
'Fifteen years ago there were no adverts and no products to advertise. A soft drink was a soft drink and there was only one word for it - water' Happy milkmaids, fields of corn, golden light and lots of old men vaguely modelled on Leo Tolstoy. This is the surreal image of Russia presented in television ads. Quite how anybody expects people who actually live here to believe that there are robust, rosy-cheeked girls in embroidered shirts happily slopping milk from one pail to the next in some pastoral idyll outside the ring road, I cannot imagine.
Fifteen years ago there was none of this drivel. No adverts, no products to advertise, no spin. Cheese was cheese (in fact there were two sorts - yellow and white), and a soft drink was a soft drink. There was only one word for it - water. Anything non-alcoholic came under this name. You knew where you were.
Then, in 1990, a billboard went up in Pushkin Square. It was huge. On it was a little line- drawing of a man holding a can. The caption, a ludicrously literal translation of the English, read: '7UP. More a jar of water than a way of life.' People stood before it, squinting up in a desperate attempt to extract meaning. This was the start of advertising in Russia.
For at least two years, direct translations of foreign advertisements baffled the Russian populace. 'Bounty - the enjoyment of paradise' did not disclose that there was something to eat beyond the palm-tree wrapper and not a sex aid, as the words suggested. But eventually the economic colonists got the hang of things and started running faintly 1950s-style ads of the 'buy this, it does this and is better than that' type. This went down much better and Russians began to believe that there were differences between cans of drink, and the ways of life that went with them. They were not quite as convinced as their Western counterparts, perhaps - Russians in general have a more finely developed sense of irony than we do - but they managed to have a Coke versus Pepsi war nonetheless.
Today, however, it's a new ball game. While the nightmarish 'Papa? Nicole!' might not yet be appreciated, Western-style coffee ads are. Nowadays, the idea is to show affluent Russians enjoying the finer things in life. There is a fantastic one in which a girl lets a waiting lover leave messages asking where she is, as she enjoys her delicious cup of coffee in a faintly sexual way.
The thing is, where is she? She cannot be shown in some awful Brezhnev high-rise, but the beautiful pre-Revolutionary apartments here are not yet fashionable because old people are still dying in them. So this gorgeous woman lives in a ground-floor place that overlooks a forest and is always bathed in golden light. If by some amazing chance such a place exists, she would need bars on the windows and an armed guard nearby.
But best of all, there are now Russian companies running sophisticated ad campaigns. The trouble is, they have a Russian product to sell to Russians. This means that they cannot use beautiful Russian youngsters, looking Westernised and standing in a basketball court saying 'I can chew it all day and it never loses its taste', because that is still selling the West to Russia. They have to sell Russia.
The results are hilarious. This surreal twilight zone country has emerged - happy peasants in fields of gold meet affluent new Russians with cars and country houses. The most toe-curling of these involves a little boy on in-line skates, gliding along a pristine riverbank (no such thing around these parts and anyway, he would fall down a pothole in the pavement and do himself an injury), hand in hand with his Grandpa. I think the boy is wearing a Walkman around his neck and if not, he ought to be.
Grandpa has a long, grey beard and is wearing a belted peasant shirt and shoes made out of reeds. Presumably his son eschewed his simple way of life and became a contract killer or similar (in-line skates are expensive). Anyway, Grandpa is droning on about how the cathedrals are the heart of Russia (how he came out of Communism looking so well with such stringent religious beliefs is anyone's guess). The boy looks convinced.
The strangest, though, is Milaya Mila (sweet Lyudmilla), a pretty, buxom mother who goes out into the pale morning light, skips through the dew to her healthy, happy cows and comes home with pails of fresh milk for her eager, early-rising family.
What is so interesting about all these ads is that, without exception, they carefully omit the past 75 years. It is as though Russia leapt straight from Tolstoyan paradise to American dream without a glitch. Would that were true - and perhaps, with a carton of milk, a stick of chewing gum and an aromatic cup of coffee, it just might be.