Russia: Adverts tempt and taunt old comrades

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The Independent Online
Seventy years ago this month, Lenin banned commercial advertising in Russia in favour of state propaganda. Now it's back with a vengeance, writes Phil Reeves in Moscow, but to mixed reviews.

Not long ago, the Moscow-based newspaper Kommersant came up with what it hoped was a good wheeze. Keen to boost its modest sales, it bought some billboards and plastered them with eye-catching slogans printed in big, black letters. "Who's the boss here?" asked one. "What's going on?" said another. "How will it all end?" asked a third. "What about the money?" The questions stood without explanation; nowhere was the newspaper mentioned.

To Western eyes, it was an orthodox marketing stunt. But in Russia, consumerism is young and the social order fragile; complaints flooded in. They were subversive, said bureaucrats; it was an attempt to stir up revolutionary sentiments. In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, officials ordered them to be torn down. In Kazan, the government blamed opposition parties and tried to close them.

In Moscow, transport officials complained the slogans were too political to be placed on trolley buses. "This reflects the mentality of the authorities," said Ruslam Arifdyanov, from Kommersant. "A few simple words like `Who's the boss?' were seen as mutinous."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the advertising business has exploded in Russia. It is now turning over about $1.2bn - a figure which industry insiders expect to grow fivefold within the next six years. Already there are 969 registered advertising companies. Yet Russians frequently regard the phenomenon with hostility. Resentment has swelled among the poor and elderly who dislike living among brash reminders of products they cannot afford. They complain that advertisements are too explicit, particularly television commercials for tampons. When Mr Yeltsin launched a new national channel called Culture TV, it boasted that it was state- funded and advertising-free (so far).

Part of the problem is demographic. As elderly Russians have less spending power than their Western counterparts, advertisers target the young, churning out hip and sometimes raunchy ads in which scantily clad women regularly appear. Conservatives in the Orthodox Church have begun co-ordinating efforts to pass restrictive laws through parliament. It is "the propaganda of evil", says Yevgeny Nikiforov, from Radonyezh, a religious radio station and newspaper. "In a legal state people should be free not to be insulted and perverted by others."

The revival of advertising, which first came to Moscow in the 1870s, has come as a shock. In Soviet times, Russians were starved of even basic information about consumer products. Finding out what was on sale, and where, required access to the grapevine and a readiness to stand in queues for hours. People would frequently join a line without knowing what it was for, on the off-chance that the boots, or coats, or hats at the end of it would prove a good investment.

The small amount of Soviet advertising was about as subtle and convincing as the Communist slogans plastered in and outside every school and factory (which urged people to produce rather than consume). In a society without choice, these often seemed absurd. Russians would joke about the ubiquitous "Fly Aeroflot" signs. What other airlines could they fly?

Since then, the industry has become immeasurably more sophisticated. "What we are witnessing is the birth of a new society, a society of consumers," said Sergei Lisovsky, 38, head of the Premiere SV advertising corporation, as he sat in his office, surrounded by the trophies of wealth - sculptures, model galleons, a magnum of champagne.

His company, which handles more that half of Russia's television advertising, played a pivotal role in selling Boris Yeltsin before last year's elections, turning dismal ratings into victory by commandeering the airwaves and bombarding the electorate with commercials. It made the president into a milestone in advertising history in his own right: he is the first Russian leader who owes his place in the Kremlin in large part to marketing techniques.

Evidence of Mr Lisovsky's social revolution is abundant, at least in Moscow. The centre is awash with billboards advertising imported cars, cosmetics, electronics, cigarettes, drinks and the other low-cost products that occupy the vanguard in Russia's faltering march towards a consumer society.

Amid all the squabbling over Russia's ads, there are glimpses of humanity. Take the scores of billboards in Moscow which show a beautiful woman in black and white, but for her eyes, which are green. Underneath are simply the words "I love you". The posters were the work of the woman's husband, Alexander Sharapov. The fact that he has a shoe business, and his wife is an ex-model, led to suspicions about his motives. But he insists that they were romantic. "Ads urge you to buy. I wanted something to make people relax. I wanted to share my feelings but without identifying myself." Lenin - a fierce prude - would not have approved.