Advertising blitz frustrates struggling Russians Purveyors say medium needed to teach buyers

December 14, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The Communists who ran this country for more than 70 years regarded advertising with such suspicion that they banned the word.

"The people at the top hated advertising so much they even abolished its name," says Vyacheslav S. Chernyakhovsky, editor of Reklamny Mir (Advertising World) magazine. "They called it psychotechnology."

Today, advertising is everywhere. With dizzying speed, the signs exhorting "Glory to the Communist Party" have disappeared from the cornices of big buildings, along with the inspiring "Siberia is the Lungs of the Soviet Union."

They have been replaced by huge billboards where rosy-cheeked Santas lustily drink Coca Cola and prosperous young couples drive Chevy Blazers filled with the fruits of conspicuous consumption.

On television, beautiful women lope across screens with the confidence acquired from the right sanitary napkin, and smiling housewives gloat over their whiter-than-white laundry. Only the other day, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former general secretary of the Communist party, filmed a Pizza Hut commercial.

This sudden ascent into the heady world of advertising has left many Russians with the bends. What took Americans perhaps 50 years to assimilate has been thrust on Russians in five or six.

"The majority of the population is against advertising," Chernyakhovsky says. "If people don't have money and they switch on the television or pick up a newspaper and see an ad for a sofa, they don't like it. People are disgusted that things are offered that can't be bought."

With advertising turnover for 1997 estimated at $1.2 billion -- and expected to increase to $6 billion within 10 years -- some Russians are beginning to wonder if the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was right when it darkly warned that advertising was "a social weapon of the exploiting class" that was used to "help impose superfluous needs and inculcate conformist views and implant worship of fashion."

But Chernyakhovsky is confident that as the economy improves and people earn more money, market forces will work properly: frustration will turn into the ability to buy, buy, buy. In the meantime, he says, consumers must be educated -- with more advertising.

"In Soviet times they said our goods didn't need advertising," he says, "and people didn't understand that if goods didn't need advertising they were good for nothing. Every product needs advertising like a candy needs a wrapper."

In the U.S., Chernyakhovsky says, the advertising industry turns over $125 billion a year -- 100 times more than in Russia.

"When you are born an American you are born a citizen, a taxpayer and a consumer," he says. "For us, American advertising is a beacon. We're trying to catch light from the States and follow it."

Sergei F. Lisovsky is young enough -- at 37 -- and handsome enough -- he's lean and beautifully tailored -- to serve as an emblem of all that advertising is about to become here. He is also very rich, as general director of one of Russia's most successful advertising agencies, Premier SV, which he co-founded in 1991.

"What we are witnessing is the birth of a new society, a society of consumers," says Lisovsky from an office that would inspire any budding consumer with its sleek computer equipment, magnum of champagne and photos of Lisovsky outfitted for a Paris to Dakar road rally. Of course, he reached Dakar, unlike some other competitors.

"The Russian people haven't got used to such a great amount of advertising," he says, "and some segments of the population are very negative. The poorer and older, the more negative the attitude is."

Advertising has its special set of challenges here -- like black and white television. Before 1990, 70 percent of all televisions were black and white, and though that figure is slowly declining, Russia requires ads that look as good in black and white as they do in color.

"And before you advertise the quality of some good," Lisovsky says, "you have to prove its necessity."

Toothpaste commercials spend lots of time explaining the decay process because Western salesmen discovered Russians brush their teeth an average of once a week and buy a new toothbrush every two years. Detergent manufacturers show how to wash laundry in a basin, because so many people lack washing machines.

Most advertising looks highly professional, and Russians have been winning international competitions with their work. Lisovsky's own work is so polished that he has been credited with selling Boris N. Yeltsin to voters in the 1996 presidential election.

The polls were showing Yeltsin in serious danger before Lisovsky was summoned. His market research found that 90 percent of youthful voters thought there was no point in voting because nothing depended on them. His campaign -- "Vote or Lose" -- persuaded them otherwise.

The Communists, who were confidently deploying their well-organized ranks door to door, never knew what hit them.

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