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Column One: Irn Bru is new opiate of the Russian masses

PREGNANT, goose-stepping Kremlin guards grin at the viewer while a voice-over says of the bloated stomachs: "It's not six months. It's six bottles of Irn Bru!"

In Russia, this advertisement is hilarious, but no more humorous than the picture of a cow that says: "When I'm a burger, I want to be washed down with Irn Bru."

Yes, it is true, the drink made in Scotland from girders is as big with Cossacks as it is in the Trossachs. Irn Bru has smashed through the Irn Curtain.

Yesterday, AG Barr, the Glasgow-based company that makes the copper- coloured brew, reported six-monthly profits of pounds 8.23m, up by 9 per cent largely because of astonishing success in Russia, where the infamous hangover cure has established itself as one of the five most popular drinks. An irreverent marketing policy has put it up there with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Fanta and 7 Up as the drink for the fashion- conscious Russian adolescent.

The Barr family has been making their secret recipe since 1830, but it has recently undergone a makeover. Images of grannies handing sparkling refreshment to boys in long shorts have been replaced by odd adverts featuring babies suckling breasts and thinking: "Ooh, good. Mum's been on the Irn Bru again." Similarly, in Russia, the "yoof" market is being seduced by strange cartoon characters, trendy jeepsters and cool kids who shout "Hubba, hubba" as a euphemism for Irn Bru.

It is a success story that began almost by accident. Barr's export manager, Joe Flynn, was in Glasgow attending a Scottish trade conference a couple of years ago when he was told that a Russian company attempting to go into business with Pepsi had been let down and was looking for another partner. Mr Flynn decided to meet the Russians and step into the breach. "We haven't looked back since," he said.

A factory was built on the outskirts of Moscow, the first bottle rolled off the production line in July 1998 - and the Russian public loved it. Barr left the advertising to the Russians, stating only that, as in Britain, it should be strange, funny and appealing to 16- to 24-year- olds. This month, the Moscow factory is expected to turn out 1.5 million litres of the brew.

The sweetness of the drink cannot be the sole reason for its success - it contains only as much sugar as Coca-Cola. The marketing is another reason - but again, not the only one. Could it, perhaps, be that the old urban myth is true, that Irn Bru really does cure hangovers? In a country where vodka is drunk in preference to water, maybe they have found what they have been looking for.