Hungry Russia feeds on glamour of ads: The Communists promised paradise on earth: advertisers now play the same role, writes Andrew Higgins in Moscow

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RARELY since the Soviet film industry turned War and Peace into a movie has there been anything quite so extravagant: location shoots in Kazakhstan, a cast of literally thousands, including scores of horses, a Napoleon look-alike and period costumes from Russia's imperial court. Julius Caesar, Catherine the Great, Tamerlane and Alexander the Great put in appearances, as does a half-naked slave-girl in a micro-mini-coat of mail.

The big event is a television advertisement for a Russian bank. Bombarded for decades by the stale propaganda of the Communist Party, Russians are now preyed upon by the more lavish and more lascivious propagandists of capitalism. 'It is like plague or cholera,' said Vladimir Andreyev of the Association of Advertising Agencies, a trade guild set up last autumn by a group of more reputable firms. 'The growth is out of control.'

In Moscow there are about 2,000 companies involved in advertising, a line of work denounced by the Great Soviet Encyclopedia as 'a means of swindling the people.' The collapse of the MMM pyramid scheme has left many people thinking the Communists may have been right.

Millions put their money into the venture after a plodding Russian Everyman, Lyonya Golubkov, appeared on television night after night, boasting of how he bought a house in Paris thanks to MMM. 'Russia now is the Yukon or California during the Gold Rush,' said Bruce Macdonald, director in Moscow of BBDO Marketing, one of a growing number of international advertising agencies setting up in Russia. The Communist Party promised paradise on earth. Advertisements promise what, to the bulk of the population, is an equally far-off world of Mercedes, cat food, casinos and diet pills. 'There is a very fine line between propaganda and advertising,' Mr Macdonald said.

The boundary can appear vague in Russia. Commissioned by car dealers to organise television adverts, a home-grown agency, Premier, staged a mock Communist Party rally. It rented a hall, draped it with red banners and filled it with actors dressed as happy peasants and soldiers. They cheered rapturously as SoyuzAuto presented its wares on a stage.

Apart from MMM and a string of dubious investment companies promising overnight wealth, few Russian companies show much interest in selling their products. Car firms do not talk about prices or engines; banks never mention interest rates or promise service with a smile. Most simply trumpet their brand name, and scarcely refer to what they do.

'A lot of advertising here is driven by ego,' Mr Macdonald said. 'The attitude is: 'I'm an important bank, let's get a loud- speaker and shout at everyone'.' No company has lavished so much money on its ego as Imperial Bank, a household name across 11 time zones, thanks to Napoleon and various co-stars in the firm's series of 60-second historical epics.

It is the most expensive advertising campaign mounted in Russia. (How much exactly is a secret). For a firm so determined to project itself into every Russian houehold, Imperial Bank has an odd profile. It could not care less what ordinary people do with their money. Its customers are state-run corporations like Gazprom, formerly run by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, not people at home watching television. A phone call to the bank's Moscow headquarters elicited this response from a spokeswoman: 'We have no dealings with individuals.' She then slammed down the phone.

'There is still very little real competition, so all many companies really care about is prestige, their image,' said Sergei Tyukhaev, a producer at Video International, Imperial Bank's Moscow-based agency. 'Our commercials for the bank have nothing to do with banking.' After orchestrating two television campaigns for Imperial Bank, the agency plans a third, with a budget big enough to include filming in Peking or Hong Kong.

Exotic locations and historical fantasies might not drum up much business, but they flatter the bosses who make the decisions. 'Paying a lot of money to advertise is like buying an expensive car,' explained Yegor Makhalov, production director at Premier, another big Moscow agency, 'It shows you are solidly rich.' A minute on national television now costs over dollars 20,000 ( pounds 12,000), much cheaper than in the West, but 10 times what it cost two years ago.

The emphasis on image, not details, suits companies which, in the embryonic stage of capitalism, are not sure what they want to do and how. Russian companies - like the whole country - are still inventing themselves and their pasts. Banks set up months ago manufacture ancient lineages by embracing imperial grandees in frock coats and top hats. A television advertisement for Alpha Bank showed Piotr Stolypin and a procession of 19th century financiers and Tsarist officials.

On television the golden rule is fantasy, not fact. When BBDO was asked to suggest a sales pitch for Russia's biggest bank, the state- run savings bank, Natwork, it recommended appealing to harried housewives, who control the cash in most households. It proposed a story-line based on a day in the life in an ordinary, exhausted Russian woman. A test group rejected it, said Mr Macdonald: 'They all said: 'This is what my life is like but I don't need you to tell me about it. I want escape'.'

(Photograph omitted)