The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

New Era for Russian Advertising?

It doesn’t take Charles Saatchi to understand why Russia is still playing catch up with the West in the fields of commercial advertising, marketing and PR. The absence of these industries in Russia until the early 1990s left it not only with an industry to develop from scratch, but with a dearth of skilled professionals that is still felt today.

Yet a quirky story in the Moscow Times about jingoistic cans of salted pork fat hints at a new era for Russian advertising.

“In the heat of Ukraine’s presidential election in 2004, a Kremlin spin doctor pitched an idea for a smear campaign to the pro-Russia candidate. The plan was to stock Ukrainian supermarket shelves with cans of a new product labeled “American Salo,” thus sparking anti-American sentiment among voters by linking U.S. hegemony to the traditional Ukrainian dish of salted pork fat, the Kremlin spin doctor, Oleg Matveichev, told the Moscow Times.

The candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, jettisoned the idea, Matveichev said, and his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, went on to win the presidency in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

Now with the next Ukrainian presidential election just a year away, American Salo has resurfaced in a mysterious billboard campaign in the Moscow metro that Matveichev, currently a Kremlin adviser on domestic politics, said he has nothing to do with.”

No specific group is claiming credit for the campaign, although the Moscow Times speculates the adverts may be part of a viral campaign by The Creative Factory – either to promote a book, or for some altogether more opaque political reason. Whatever the reasoning, the ads are a promising sign for the Russian advertising industry.

Those who doubt the effect of such adverts should learn more about the brilliant and sinister career of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and the father of modern PR and marketing.

Bernays was convinced that the pioneering work of his uncle Sigmund could be applied to the field of propaganda, and he used his theory to become both a pioneer in his field, as well as vastly rich and influential, working for numerous blue-chip American corporations and President Calvin Coolidge.

In one of his more famous efforts, Bernays was tasked by the British American Tobacco company to make cigarette smoking more popular among women. Smoking rates were far lower among women than men, and the tobacco companies felt they were losing half of their market – although they couldn’t understand why.

For a sizeable fee, Bernays promised to increase smoking among women.

He believed that cigarettes were a phallic symbol, and it was this which subconsciously stopped women from smoking. Bernays understood that the advertising techniques commonplace at the time would not work, and it was the subconscious symbolism of the cigarette itself that needed changing.

He used his contacts with the press to leak the news that there would be an extraordinary symbol of the advancement of women’s rights at a New York parade in 1920s (I forget the year). The women, Bernays said, would light torches of freedom during the parade as a symbol of their feminist struggle and newfound liberty.

The torches turned out to be Lucky Strikes, and the women – who all happened to be sorority models – were snapped by the eagerly waiting photographers and made front page news the next day. Cigarettes henceforth became symbols of female freedom, rebellion, self-determination, and sophistication. Sales among women increased. Bernays’s name was made.

American Salo is certainly out of the Barnays playbook, and the inventors of the campaign should be lauded.

Those interested in the techniques of Edward Bernays can watch Adam Curtis’s superb documentary, The Century of the Self. I seem to remember that the second part focuses on Bernays.

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One Response

  1. Alex says:

    The former Soviet territory always had two troubles: roads and fools. But life goes on, and the list of troubles gets certain national colour. It seems, that in Ukraine now it is necessary to be afraid not only of “fools” and “roads”, but “ crisis struggle” and “Euro 2012 preparation”.

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