A Strange Hybrid
February 28, 1994
Feb 28, 1994
16 Min read time
A close look at post-Soviet commercial advertising reveals that market norms never really took hold—even among capitalists.
In the 1920s, Russian avant-garde artists dreamed of a total redesign of new communist culture and everyday life. The most progressive means of Soviet transportation, the tram, would carry the slogan "Long Live the World Revolution!" surrounded by red and white geometrical shapes, the embodiments of revolutionary non-representation.
In the 1990s, a shabby post-Soviet tram made in the People's Republic of Hungary during the Brezhnev era carries a different slogan: "The New Generation Chooses Pepsi," supported by a larger-than-life—but realistic—representation of the western drink.
Advertising can become untranslatable when it moves to the other side of the former iron curtain.
Post-Soviet Moscow is full of such images. A plastic, second-hand Mickey Mouse faces a full-sized cartoon of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, with the Pushkin monument in the background. The Pushkin monument, already turned around in Stalin's times (to face new Gorky Street and not the old monastery), now faces a two-hour line at McDonald's. The "great genius of Russian letters" and symbol of Russian national culture contemplates a huge "M"—which does not stand for nearby Marx Avenue. The McDonald's in Moscow is a monument to the western world in miniature—here you can see a model Big Ben and Eiffel Tower and Japanese pagoda under a brightly painted California sky, with wind surfers disappearing on the horizon.
It might appear that the spread of markets is generating a commercial culture that knows no country, supplanting earlier revolutionary internationalist dreams. Yet closer examination of the post-Soviet marketplace shows that the "western" language of advertisement is hardly becoming a new commercial esperanto. In fact, advertising can become untranslatable when it moves to the other side of the former iron curtain. To understand commercial communication, Russian style, one has to remember the old practices of reading between the lines, using Aesopian language, speaking with "half-words," and perpetuating exclusive imaginary communities through language. Russian commercial communication has its own esoteric side that does not easily translate into western commercial language. New advertisements are strange hybrids of western and Russian styles that reflect a state of cultural confusion and the crisis of unified culture. Commercials reveal an uncomfortable post-communist menage à trois—a cautious romance with the mythical West and a perpetual love affair with no less mythical "old Russia," unfolding in that "pseudo-Russian style" of the late 19th century, the style of Byzantine Revival. New advertisements in Russia often physically displace Soviet slogans, as those "images of the visual propaganda" replaced commercial advertisement in the late 1920s when commercial culture was prohibited. Where the banner in Red Square once read: "Strengthen the unbreakable friendship of the peoples of the Soviet Union," a new advertisement celebrates a different kind of international friendship, urging people to "Visit the Canary Islands." The "Canary Islands," in this case, stand for a different style of earthly paradise—as inaccessible for the average Russian citizen as the Soviet ideological one. The advertisement offers escape, and nowhere in the world would the invitation to visit the Canary Islands have produced such an outburst of negative emotion; it was a major object of attack during a May 1992 demonstration of communists and nationalistStalinists, who carried portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Sometimes the ex-Soviet slogan and the new advertisement more or less peacefully coexist in one place. Right under the mosaic slogan "We built communism" inlayed on the side of the building in Moscow during Khruschev's times, there is a new announcement in the red and blue colors of the Russian flag: "We build new Russia". Structurally, the two statements have a lot in common. The "we" in both of them has no real referent; it is not about communication at all but about incantation, about the magical attractions offerred by promises of future happiness.
They do not advertise commodities for sale, but immaterial goods as "stock market seats" or "patent protection," or something disguised by layers of pseudo-foreign neologisms that nobody is quite sure what it is.
But in the summer of 1992 the best-known slogan was not about building Russia, but about "MMM—No Problem!" ("MMM—net problem!"). Moscow was full of problems that summer, and nobody could tell me exactly what MMM was. But everyone joyfully recited the optimistic punch line. MMM appeared as another cheerful abbreviation like RSFSR or CPSU, only better sounding. The very expression "net problem" is quite un-Russian; in fact, it is a direct translation from English. So, whatever else it meant, MMM celebrated the presumed western ease in dealing with the world. But Moscow celebrated "Western Ease" in a Russian style of incomprehensible communication. My desire to find out what MMM actually sells—and my belief that knowledge of sheer facts might contribute to my understanding—appeared "western" and naive to my Russian friends. Eventually I discovered that MMM sold computer appliances, stocks, and semi-mythical "broker's seats"—the traditional Russian trade in "dead souls." Advertisements always sell more than they promise to sell and reveal more about the culture than they wish to reveal. There is always a certain excess, a residue of cultural myth. Take the popular American TV ad for Encore Pizza. The central character is a middle-aged Italian (or generally "ethnic-looking") man. Exuding cordiality, he offers us more of a pizza and more than a pizza. In a series of completely improbable scenes shot in a mildly comic realistic style, different people—a "confirmed bachelor," an elderly woman, and various desperate singles—come to the shop to complain that they've gotten "too much pizza." The jovial pizza-man explains that this is a family-sized pizza and if they don't have a family, he would happily bring his own for dinner. It is a chat between "common people" in some imaginary friendly neighborhood. And like many American commercials, it uses humor and playful self-reflexivity, without ever making fun of or disrupting the main communication— the sale of the product. In this case, family values are served along with the pizza. They come as little extras at the multi-ethnic family dinner. "Encore," the anglicized French word that serves as a marker of cordial "Italian spirit," aids commercial—and cultural—communication. The advertisement has a particularly American history of televisual evolution. In 1992, four years after the pizza ad was originally aired, the same jovial TV cook reappeared, this time promoting "On-Core Steaks." Replacing the desperate singles from the previous ad, well-known TV characters come in search of an ideal TV dinner. The TV ad becomes more self-referential, with "encore" turned into an even more anglicized "On-Core" that goes to the very core of the American dream. The commercial crystallizes the popular history of Americanization, the diffusion of ethnicity in the big friendly American melting pot.
Now try to put this simple, direct, human appeal into Russian. It is completely untranslatable. Nothing could be more disturbing than the prospect of an unknown "ethnic-looking" man dropping by for dinner with his whole family. Solitude is not a major Russian problem; overcrowding is. Door locks and iron doors are now the most profitable business in the country. As for the steaks: even those that are not "family-sized" do not need elaborate promotion.
Moreover, the populist appeal of the TV ad, its comic realism, would not play well with a Russian audience. Very few "real people" appear in Russian commercials (except a few heavily-made-up-model/hard-currency-prostitute looking women). The well known TV anchorman Sergei Sholokhov explained to me that no one wants to see “common people” on television because their image was so compromised by the Soviet promise that the “kitchen cook will rule the country.” “Common people” and “kitchen cooks” are now associated with food lines. This is why there are virtually no Oprah- or Donahue-style talk shows in Russia, and why the only collective events are ESP sessions, Russian Orthodox services, yoga, rock, or aerobics. The Russian viewer turns on the TV to see something spectacular; familiar, old-fashioned, mild humor will not do.
The eclectic language of post-Soviet advertising is at once pseudo-Russian and pseudo-western; a language that plays hide-and-seek with the viewer, concealing and revealing the most unexpected things.
A new beer ad on Russian television dramatizes the characteristic commercial excess. We see a rather overweight but very Russian-looking popular comedian taking a beer bath (literally in a bathtub full of bubbling beer) and laughing uncontrollably. He tells us that the beer is so cheap that it is simply unprofitable for him to sell it. He would rather bathe in it. Shaking with laughter, he repeats the commercial refrain: “Oh, these prices are just so funny!” (“Ochen' smeshnye ceny!”) Here the excess of humor is explicitly exaggerated. And in a perverse way, the viewers share the sado-masochistic joke. They, too, think that prices in the context of current Russian hyperinflation are very funny—so funny that many people can no longer afford soap for a bath, let alone foreign beer. American commercials commonly masquerade as authentic depictions of “sincere ”—conversations among groups of “ordinary people,” pretending there is no camera. Russian commercials, on the contrary, are explicitly unnaturalistic, theatrical, spectacular. Instead of sincerity and straightforwardness, they appeal to exclusivity and power and promise protection. They use neither believable “real” nor “real things.” The communication is esoteric, and seems not to aim at actual sales. Many commercials use pictorial symbols—lions, dollar bills, or butterflies. They recover well-established techniques of the Soviet political poster—from the Brezhnev era, not the avant-garde period. And they do not advertise commodities for mass consumption, but such immaterial goods as “stock market seats” or “patent protection,” or something so carefully disguised by layers of pseudo-foreign neologisms that nobody is quite sure what it is. Although the content is new, the structures of address, the ways of communicating “between the lines,” and the links between language and status are preserved from the previous era. Business communication is a kind of post-Soviet Aesopian language. Before glasnost', Soviet intellectuals, journalists, and artists used Aesopian language to express political subtexts; the new Aesopian language, written in a code of mysterious business transactions, seduces many but is accessible to only a few. Take the journal Ogonek. Since the 1930s Ogonek has represented Soviet mass culture—the official culture through the mid-1980s, and now glasnost', of which it has been the most prominent exponent. One of the few remaining old journals for the general public, it has been printing ads on the cover of every issue for the past year—without the revenue from these ads, the journal could not survive.
A recent issue features a large ad placed by a firm called “Binitec/nol.” It shows a medieval knight in armor with his entire face covered, and is captioned: “We guard your intellectual property”. The image is a cross between Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky and a forgotten Estonian adventure film from the 1970s, like The Last Relic: a heavily armed man, of uncertain identity, is ready to guard something as immaterial as “intellectual property”—doubly immaterial because few Russian laws protect authors' rights and cultural property. To increase the impact of the image, the company's logo appears as the knight's armor—a visual metonymy turned into a metaphor—further emphasizing the idea of protection.
Many ad—directly or indirectly—sell protection, perhaps because insecurity is the most crucial source of anxiety in the post-Soviet society. An earlier ad in Ogonek, placed by the mysterious “SKF KISS,” offers to build roads and mount concrete constructions—not something the average journal reader will be in the market for. (The name of this promising enterprise, “Complex International Symbiosis Service,” abbreviated as the English “KISS,” is excessive and tautological; the idea, apparently, is that everything has to be international, bear the prefix “inter,” and offer service with a foreign accent. Other qualifying adjectives are left to individual imagination.) The ad features a bright pastel sketch of a perfect anytown and two portraits. The portrait on the left shows a smiling western-style executive; on the right there is a broad-shouldered, frowning, scary-looking man in a black jacket whose intensely Russian demeanor signals “force” or “protection by force.” The reader of the ad should know that the “international symbiosis service,” with all its euphonic foreign words, has the actual power to protect itself.
When I spoke with the director for the commercial section of Ogonek (who did not look at all like an American commercial manager, but rather like a young member of the Russian intelligentsia with a good sense of non-commercial humor), he said that many of the ads are meant for other businessmen, rather than for Ogonek readers. Advertising in Ogonek remains a source of prestige. So the ads aim at establishing status in the networks of post-Soviet entrepreneurs, not at attracting consumers. Their esoteric language is simply incomprehensible to the majority of utterly impoverished—and perplexed—consumers.
Ogonek ads do occasionally appear for ordinary readers; and readers do sometimes respond. Several years ago, an ad promised another kind of “international symbiosis.” It asked readers to send $25; in return the ad guaranteed eternal marital bliss, western style. The ad provoked a huge number of responses—most complaining that while they had lovable qualities, they did not have $25 or did not know how to send it. There is no checking system in Russia, all hard currency accounts are under constant threat, and the mail system hardly works. So sending $25 is much harder than simply having it, which is only virtually impossible. The readers of Ogonek could not board the foreign love boat.
If Russian styles of communicating with consumers appear quite strange to western observers, the forms of seduction, by contrast, are obvious, naive, and old-fashioned. One of the more explicit MMM ads in Ogonek reads “Give us a chance to save your time and money!” It shows a young woman in a green negligée with black lace sitting in a sea of rubles (I want to stress the patriotic nature of the ad—rubles!). Apart from the not-very hard currency surrounding the green negligée, the image is reminiscent of western ads of the 1970s. If pizza ads, addressed to Americans tired of technological slickness and seeking down-home warmth, have little appeal for a Russian audience (beyond the pizza itself), glamorous ads (or trying-hard-to-be-glamorous ads) with half-dressed girls and technological gadgets seduce Russians as much as Americans (and the former have fewer troubles with them). The Russian attitude toward the ads is pure aesthetic escapism —most of the products (personal computers in particular) are inaccessible; Russian consumers look for exoticism and foreign glamour rather than for everyday familiarity and hominess.
The Russian viewer turns on the TV to see something spectacular; familiar, old-fashioned, mild humor will not do.
The MMM ad is revealing in another way as well. It does not, of course, address women as potential buyers of the appliances. (Who would wish to conduct her business on the computer in this outfit?) Instead, it appeals to male entrepreneurs who can afford a secretary—as well as her green negligée. This ad, like the ad for “International symbiosis,” indicates something about Russian business practices. Many female secretaries in the new firms perform more than their professional duties. The concept of “sexual harassment,” like that of legal protection, is absent, and the assumption is that women know what to expect when they take well-paid secretarial jobs in the private sector. Privacy and bodily integrity are not part of the “intellectual property“ of the codex of new entrepreneurs. Unlike American ads, Russian ads are also not yet self-referential: "See, that's me in that commercial; it was fun making it. I still drink the TV cola, and I hope that so do you." Even the popular newspaper Kommersant, the voice of the “new generation” that pokes fun at everything (Bush, Clinton, Madonna, Yeltsin, etc.), takes its commercial ads very seriously. The commercial culture in Russia is still too young to laugh at itself. This is particularly striking in the occasional uncritical adoption of what are perceived as western fashions—a perfectly all-American boy wearing shorts with an American-flag design, an “I love NY“ T-shirt, a George Bush button, and a McDonald's cap. Of course, he does not look American; he is too American truly to be one. His affected Americanness is excessive and in a different context would appear a parody. At the same time the young man does not appear “Americanized“ in his manners; for him America is the land from the popular Russian rock song: “Bye, bye, Amerika, the country where I will never go“ (Bai, bai, Amerika, gde ia ne budu nikogda). Perhaps it is the wild extremes of Americana that makes him so Russian. What are the icons of this new post-Soviet culture? Apart from the prestige of the advertisers themselves, what are the little “extras,“ the surplus values that it sells? Many ads use old signs of Russian cultural prestige; many appeal to Russian high culture as well as to western technology, offering a peculiar marriage of the two. On the first page of an artsy computer ad, we see an old-fashioned typewriter, pince-nez glasses, an old watch, and a 19th century file for papers, complete with spirals of whimsical handwriting. It evokes the writing ambiance of the 19th century. (According to the commercial director some of the items in the ad came from the house of the poet Afanasii Fet.) On the next page we see the computer and the old watch with a golden chain lying together with some bright high quality western journals. The text reads: “Quality and reliable partnership.“ It is as if there were a continuity between the “high“ cultural scene of writing and the “high quality“ technological scene—as if the ad proposes simply to graze from all Soviet periods in a peculiar historical leap of faith. Ads also frequently use high-quality art photographs that blend with the photographs on the journal's cover and offer new commercial opportunities to many unemployed ex-Soviet artists. Yet we will never find here the artistic traces of the Russian avant-garde that have become (in a tame form, of course) a commonplace of western design. Revolutionary futuristic art is completely passé and has been replaced by styles that the avant-gardists themselves considered “passé-ist“ and conservative—the so-called “pseudo-Russian style“ favored by the merchants and Maecenas of the turn of the previous century.
An ad from the “international edition“ of a journal ambiguously entitled Voskresenie conveys a similar message. (Voskreseniemeans both “Sunday“ and “resurrection.“ So it might translate as "Sunday Times" or "Resurrection Weekly.") The cover ad presents the “auction and material and fund (tovarno-fondovaia) stock market `Extra.'“ “Extra“ sells brokers' seats, and the caption reads: “`Extra' is electronic, communications, telecommunication, etc.“ The image—a tower reminiscent of Star Trek, The Next Generation—is bathed in laser fireworks and covered by attractive foreign labels.
But this fairy tale-come-true is not entirely foreign-made. The word “stock market,“ and the name “Extra“ are written in pseudo-Slavonic letters. This style was particularly popular with the new class of Russian merchants and entrepreneurs at the turn of the 19th century. The merchants' mansions changed Moscow's landscape. Differing sharply in style from the neoclassical estates of western-oriented nobility, they offered eclectic fantasies on pre-Petrine architecture, and were often far more sumptuous than the imagined originals. The nostalgic revival of pre-revolutionary, native Russian capitalism is one of the major historic revisions of the post-Soviet era. The pseudo-Russian style has become the style of the new "merchant revival" of post-glasnost' —an imitation of the imitation. A blue church bell frames the letters of the word “stock market,“ reassuring the client that the market of “Extra“ is not anything foreign, but ours, Russian. At the top of the ad, though, there is another caption—this time, in English—“New Russia.“ So perhaps the ad addresses the potential foreign clients who will be drawn to the “new Russia“ by a bit of Russian exoticism.
It is all here: the eclectic language of post-Soviet advertising, at once pseudo-Russian and pseudo-western; a language that plays hide-and-seek with the viewer, concealing and revealing the most unexpected things. Perhaps Russian society will be healthier when legal protections and human rights are ensured and, at the same time, when people begin to laugh at the commercials, and invent anecdotes about MMM and its lack of problems. But now “Extra“ offers us only another glimpse at the fusion and confusion of western special effects and pseudo-Russian revivals that shape the new, complex, and chaotic culture of post-Soviet Russia.
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February 28, 1994
16 Min read time