In war for Russian minds, Snickers is a blockbuster

January 24, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Heard the latest knee-slapper making the rounds of Russian elementary schools?

Question: What happened to Snickers when it came to Russia?

Answer: It lost weight.

To get the joke, you have to know the advertising slogan that has saturated the Russian airwaves: that Snickers is covered with "a fat, fat layer of chocolate."

Quips about fat, fat layers of chocolate have started to turn up in would-be witty headlines and even in speeches in Parliament.

"Snickers is becoming a kind of a symbol," said Dmitri Ivliyev, consumer affairs reporter for the daily Izvestia. "Not only of Western life -- I'd call it a symbol of our new times."

In the new Russia that President Clinton visited this month, some of the Western companies that slavered over potential Soviet sales as the Iron Curtain came down are beginning to make major inroads across the Russian expanse -- and into the Russian consciousness.

Snickers and its Mars Inc. cousins -- Bounty, Mars bars, Twix and Milky Way -- appear to have penetrated the Russian market far beyond any other U.S. consumer product.

Freezer wagons selling ice-cream versions of the Mars treats stand on corner after corner along St. Petersburg's central Nevsky Prospekt. Moscow schools in wealthier districts are strewn with the wrappers on days the cafeteria stocks the candies.

Demand is so high that chocolate thieves recently hijacked a Mars truck in central Moscow, grabbing tons of Mars and Snickers bars worth about $39,000. Teen-agers have been overheard computing prices in Snickers -- "That would cost three Snickers!" -- and Russians near the Chinese border reportedly consider the ability to buy two Snickers bars per week a sign that a person has solidly reached the middle class.

The candy bars have become so widespread that one cultural critic, Artemy Troitsky, named them in his 1993 list of the top 10 Russian "objects of the year" for the daily Moscow Times, among other booming new trendy objects including handguns, currency exchange booths, casinos and telephones equipped so callers can be identified.

In the old Soviet Union, Russians could buy a taste of America mainly through Marlboro cigarettes, which were sold only for dollars and so highly valued that a pack could be used as virtual currency with cabbies and officials. Marlboro remains strong, as do Levi's jeans and Wrigley's gum.

But it is the humble Snickers bar, selling at 50 cents or so, that has conquered the new Russians, who cast off communism in hopes of living like Americans.

The Snickers success story is even more surprising here, considering that Russians already have plenty to tempt their notorious sweet tooth. They consume all kinds of more traditional cakes, ice cream and candies, including their own snack bars, which tend to feature darker, more bitter chocolate.

But Mars has found a distinctly American way to create a voracious appetite for its products through the kind of powerful, mercilessly repetitive advertising that has been pervasive in the United States for decades and is only now beginning here.

Starting in 1992 with billboards that irritated many consumers by advertising Mars products even before they were available in most stores, the campaign moved on last year to a television blitz the likes of which Russians had never seen.

With its near-universal name recognition, Snickers is also becoming a lightning rod for Russian sentiment focused against the West, against the difficulties of the new era. The hard-line Moskovskaya Pravda recently ran an editorial lambasting President Boris N. Yeltsin's reformers for claiming to care about the country while in fact, it said, they were more concerned about taking foreign trips and building themselves luxurious houses.

"They flooded the country with chocolate bars," it said as an example of ill-considered ideas, "and now when you ask schoolchildren to name the planets, they quickly answer, 'Mars. Snickers . . .' "

Another newspaper ran a cartoon that depicted a poster proclaiming Snickers the best antidote to hunger -- with an emaciated man, clearly dead of starvation, lying beneath it.

This anti-Western sentiment may contribute to Mars officials' total refusal to talk about the company's Russian success and controversy. Masterfoods, the Mars arm in Russia, refused to comment even briefly on how it has managed to spread its distribution network across Russia's breadth where many others have failed.

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