20 May 2004
Once upon a time there was a land called the Soviet Union, and in that land advertising was almost non-existent. Why advertise products that were always in short supply to begin with?
On the other hand, we had Communist Party slogans. Walking down the street you came across an endless stream of official wisdom. On one building you might see a poster declaring: "The People and the Party Are United!" Across the street another poster blared: "Communism Is Inevitable!" Down the road a piece a third poster informed you that this year was decisive for fulfilling the latest five-year plan. And who could forget that classic: "The Party Is the Mind, Honor and Conscience of Our Era!"
When sociology became fashionable in the mid-1980s, the party leadership decided to assess the effectiveness of what it called "visual agitation." Many a sociologist, myself included, was weighed down with questionnaires, posted next to a building with a huge poster on it and instructed to ask passers-by what they thought of it.
As I learned, the overwhelming majority didn't even notice the poster, and those who did notice it hadn't bothered to read it.
Times have changed. An enormous advertisement for the multinational Philips has taken the place of a no less enormous portrait of Leonid Brezhnev. A rooftop sign that once exhorted us to fulfill the resolutions of the latest party congress now bears the logo of Philips' competitor, Samsung. No doubt these pearls are also read by schoolchildren whose parents have encouraged them to learn the Latin alphabet.
Television advertising is the most effective of all. And the more ads you watch, the more you notice just how similar they are to Soviet propaganda. The technology has advanced, of course; images today are more vivid and refined than they were 20 years ago. A sense of irony has even crept in. But it has become increasingly unclear whether or not these ads are actually meant to sell products. Half of all TV ads seem totally indifferent to the products and brands they are supposedly pushing. Their content is exclusively ideological. They don't so much hawk TVs, computers and furniture as champion the values of a society in which purchasing TVs and so forth is all that gives meaning to life.
I have been particularly struck recently by two ads: one for Dell computers and other other for the cellular telephone operator MegaFon. The slogan used in MegaFon's advertising campaign -- "The future depends on you!" –--would serve just as well for a political campaign. As would the phrase "Let's change life for the better," which you see everywhere on Moscow roofs. It turns out you don't have to tackle poverty or stand up for your rights to change life as we know it; all you have to do is buy Philips appliances.
MegaFon goes further. Its ads contain no information about calling plans, prices or the quality of service. The TV screen is filled with crowds of identically happy people living in some great, unidentified country. These self-satisfied yuppies could be in South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, Russia, Norway or Ukraine. No concessions are made to political correctness. The yuppies are all lily-white and unquestioningly certain that their world, where you get to enjoy all the pleasures of life without having to worry about hunger, terrorism or the environmental crisis, is the best of all possible worlds. If Philips appliances and their call for change might be suspected of social-democratic leanings, mobile phones are clearly intended for diehard conservatives.
The ads for Dell computers go further still. One features a cartoonish anti-globalist babbling something about the power of the multinationals. In another we see a no less cartoonish intellectual complaining about the vulgarity of advertising and the corruption of the Russian language by Americanisms. Both characters then open their Dell notebook computers and the breezy announcer reminds us that whatever we might think about America, the quality of its computers is beyond doubt. You can't help noticing that these ads provide no information about the computer itself and are prepared to sacrifice the product and even the brand to promote a more general message. Indeed, the point is that these ads are not about computers. They are intended to convince us that the system all around us is good, and that its critics cannot be trusted.
As simple and naive as the Soviet system was, at least it didn't hide behind products and brand names when it set out to impose itself on the nation.