From the Volga to the Urals, billboard nationalism booms

State-sponsored tomato juice is out. Cellphone and Gucci ads are in. As 'made in Russia' pride surges, so does a healthy dose of consumerism.

It's glamour. It's glitz. It's advertising that sleekly promises the civilized haute couture of the Paris catwalk, as well as the best of the digital age. All at once, and with a surprisingly Russian flavor.

Looking at Moscow streets today - pasted everywhere with a vast array of often sexy billboards like a gaudy, over-decorated roccoco Christmas tree - it seems hard to believe that only a decade ago, there was no advertising here at all.

Or at least very little. The Soviet regime did set aside a thin advertising budget, and let its hair down. The state airline Aeroflot had a few billboards; tall letters across building tops read: "Drink Tomato Juice."

Today, Russians are making up for lost time. Russia's economy and business laws are chaotic, and per capita spending on advertising here is a fraction - just 3 or 4 percent, by one estimate - as much as in the United States.

But state-sponsored juice is out, while mobile phones, Gucci and Versace, big flat-screen computer monitors, feel-good health and beer ads, and nationalist slogans get full market treatment.

While there is money to be made, however, advertising in Russia is also a window on changing tastes, standards, and often contradictory politics. That means embracing European standards, while at the same time resurrecting Russian nationalism over the once-blind yearning for all things Western. Mirroring popular attitudes, an anti-American tone is widely evident.

"We rejected our whole history when the Soviet Union collapsed [in 1991]. That was our politics," says Vitaly Rasnitsyn, head of the Business League Communication Group and former chair of the Moscow Advertising Guild. "The romantic period of our relations with the West - when we were fans of the US - now it's over.

"The self-identity of Russians has changed, stimulated by anti-Russian attitudes abroad," he says. Perhaps, the greatest example was last year's election of President Vladimir Putin "under the patriotic banner."

That shift is evident on Moscow's 25,000 billboards, where Russification is more hip than at any time in the past decade. One cigarette advertisement - run by a Western tobacco firm - shows a Russian bear "striking back" at the US by throwing a Russian fur hat onto the Statue of Liberty.

Companies that once marketed their products as coming from the West are now using Russian names, to appeal to Russian consumers who have long equated them with quality. Billboards for Solodov beer became the talk of the town in April with a campaign that used the common Russian surname, reading only: "Solodov, I want you!"

"In advertising, our task is to inject a European standard into everyday Russian life - to prove that it is good, and the right thing," says Alexei Barsukov, a graphic artist and head of a graphics design firm whose clients include Western multinationals Nescafe and Dannon.

"Our task is also to keep our Russian heritage," Mr. Barsukov says. He likens the current stage of Russian development, "the process of civilization" in terms of the wealthy "New Russians" who emerged in the past decade - to 18th-century England.

Though companies on average set aside less than 4 percent of their advertising budgets for billboards (still more than for radio, according to one estimate), the high profile also attracts politicians who want to hammer home a "Russia first" message.

In relatively wealthy Moscow, one billboard campaign backed by pro-Putin Mayor Yury Luzhkov declares: "Buy Russian goods; they're just as good as foreign ones." Another reads: "I Moscow."

"They are very effective, and send several messages at once," says Barsukov, about the official campaign. "They say: 'Yes, we Russians can do things; yes, we have survived [the Soviet fall].' "

Though these mass-appeal billboard and ad designs are often inspired by Western and especially American examples, they are now applied to Russification.

Advertising is not alone: some commentators warn of a new "streak" of anti-Americanism stretching across the cultural horizon, from pop music to films to books by elite writers.

"This anti-Americanism is not just a reaction against losing the cold war ... [or] the disappointment of Ivan the fool, who can't find a place for himself," Moscow sociologist Natalya Grishina wrote recently. "It is rooted in an intense feeling of cultural alienation from the United States, feelings that distort the image of Americans until they seem more monster than human."

Such a backlash feeds the material of advertisers, who from Texas to Tehran are often the most savvy interpreters of people's desires.

"Before, patriotism and nationalism were the province of the Communist Party; now it's been taken from them," says ad executive Rasnitsyn. The result these days is pasted like a bright mosaic across Moscow.

"It's a dualism within our nationalist character," he adds. "There is xenophobia, mixed with a high estimation of the West."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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