'Adverts? On the Moscow Metro?'

A famous Soviet advert said: 'Fly Aeroflot', when you couldn't fly anything else. Things are very different now in ad-mad Russia, writes Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Online

Travelling on the Moscow Metro recently, I was pleasantly distracted by an advert showing a large cat, headed: "A leaf out of Boris the cat's lexicon." Underneath was a mock dictionary entry for "patriot": "A patriot cat is a cat who eats only Russian-recipe Kit-e-Kat."

Travelling on the Moscow Metro recently, I was pleasantly distracted by an advert showing a large cat, headed: "A leaf out of Boris the cat's lexicon." Underneath was a mock dictionary entry for "patriot": "A patriot cat is a cat who eats only Russian-recipe Kit-e-Kat."

To anyone more familiar with the old Soviet Union than the new Russia, this mini-scene sends a volley of shocks. Adverts? On the hallowed Moscow Metro? For pet food? Kit-e-Kat marketing in Russia? Capping all that, though, is the evident fact that a big multinational is not only marketing in Russian to Russians but appealing to their national pride to do so.

Advertising in Russia has gone from nowhere to ubiquitous in just 10 years. The Moscow Yellow Pages – another source of wonder to old Soviet hands, for whom a useful telephone number was once like gold – contains more than 800 entries for advertising services. In the past year or so, though, the industry has started to change. From being a largely borrowed medium that relied on Western products marketed with Western images and slogans, advertising is fast going Russian.

Yuri Zapol heads a company that is prospering as a result. He has been in Russian advertising since the beginning, transferring from television, where he worked as a cameraman on KVN, one of the most popular and politically risqué entertainment shows of the Seventies and Eighties.

His Video International group occupies Western-style offices, all pastels and brushed steel, in a Moscow suburb. But it is an entirely Russian firm. Zapol's office has heavy leather furniture, and the bank of television screens in front of him is tuned to ice hockey. A large blue-and-green parrot occasionally interrupts our conversation from its perch beside his desk.

"We learnt to shoot good adverts in the mid-Nineties," he says, "but we were hampered by poor technology. We had no 3D; for one advert, we had to keep turning the apple round and photographing it. Western companies wouldn't share their technology, so, basically, we got where we got on ingenuity."

Now, he says, Western companies are using Russian producers, and their adverts are getting a better reception. "The people in them now are obviously Russians – the men have proper Russian beards, not Western-style ones."

You can see the results – and notice the continuing cultural dissonance – by watching any commercial break on Russian television. A typical one treats viewers to a host of obviously Western ads for deodorant, toilet-cleaner, Sunsilk shampoo, Domestos, Persil and Picnic chocolate bars. The American style – with multi-ethnic children and women with plastic smiles – comes across as alien.

More accessible is a Lipton tea advert, showing people drinking tea from Russian tea glasses. The scene of family respectability and the slogan – "The mark of good taste" – are geared to the new Russian middle class. But it is in the beer adverts – the most competitive sector by far – that Russian-ness has come into its own. One, for the Tolstyak brand, opened with a group of identifiably Russian men messing around with a Russian car in a Russian shed. The pay-off line says: "Freedom for the real man – Tolstyak."

Like many new Russian adverts, that one plays on old Communist slogans, ironically twisted for commercial effect. Another, for fruit juice, has a fierce Soviet-era shop assistant peddling a carton of juice, with the words: "Honest juice for honest prices." Glaring at the viewers, she yells: "The truth, only the truth!" Tsarist Russia – crowns, sepia photographs of royal life – provides another recurrent theme that draws on a common heritage.

Young & Rubicam was among the first Western advertising companies to set up in Russia. Anastasia Markova is director of the Media Edge, a Y&R joint venture. Wooing Russians, she says, is not easy. Years of Communist propaganda have left a thick shell of scepticism. "You have to tweak their imagination with irony or humour to get through." Pausing, she suddenly says with a smile: "You know, it's not quite true that Russian advertising started from nothing. We had one advert that said: 'Fly Aeroflot!' The thing was that you couldn't fly with anyone else."

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