When Russians next go to the polls, they will vote for candies, beverages, and cologne. Or rather, for the candidates that appear on labels wrapping these goods.
Packaging candidates is the name of the game for the parliamentary race due in December and the presidential vote six months later. Looking to the West for inspiration, political parties have decided that consumerism is the way to go.
Gone is the Soviet era when marketing was frowned upon and connections were key. Today's politicians are giving their names and faces to products to gain votes.
Marketing personalities for political and financial profit spans the political left, right, and center. The tools of the new battleground are chocolates, toffees, clothing, and music.
Campaigning across the planet's biggest country territory-by-territory is formidable for even the best-funded candidates. So selling a product with the picture of a politico provides advertising without going through the trouble of putting up posters or shaking hands.
"It's a clever way to campaign in this country," says Yelena Bashkirova, Director of the Public Opinion and Market Research Institute in Moscow, which does surveys of trends. "Russians are oriented toward personalities. They tend to vote for a man, not his political program. So such branding helps sell a product while also promoting the politician."
Officially, campaigning is not allowed to begin before September. But by selling candidate-brand products, parties can get a head start on the opposition.
Only Communist die-hards are bucking the trend. Putting up statues of Lenin in a public square is one thing, they say. Placing the hammer and sickle on a lemonade bottle is another.
"We have never used such a practice," huffs Viktor Peshkov, head of the Communist Party's electoral campaign. "Every politician must be sure not to cross the border between improper and proper. What's next?"
He should address that question to Vladimir Bryntsalov, trailblazer of the branding trend. The legislator with the Our Home is Russia party set the tone when he introduced his own vodka label four years ago.
The idea caught the eye of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, maverick leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (a group that is neither liberal nor democratic).
Known for his outrageous antics, Mr. Zhirinovsky quickly launched a vodka label bearing his picture. Then he introduced his own food shops and a line of toffees, honey cakes, and beer.
"It's one of the most effective methods of advertising," Zhirinovsky told the Monitor. "A poster can be destroyed. But who can prevent someone wearing a T-shirt or putting our food and drink on his table?"
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For his latest venture, the irrepressible Zhirinovsky released an album of songs, "Nastoyacshiyi Polkovnik," or "The Real Colonel" (Zhirinovsky achieved that rank in the Army). He adorns the cover dressed in uniform, with warplanes streaming overhead.
Zhirinovsky's next effort will be a chain of clothing stores named after the T-34 tank. The garb will have a military flavor.
Joining the brandmakers is film director Nikita Mikalkov, who launched an aftershave this year. Mr. Mikalkov has been circumspect about his intentions, but is widely believed to harbor presidential ambitions.
Moscow's popular mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has also thrown his hat, or rather scent, into the ring.
For the past two years, men have been splashing themselves with a cologne called Mer (mayor). Although he has not officially declared himself a candidate for president either, Mr. Luzhkov is widely known to want the job and is seen as a top contender.
Novaya Zarya perfume company director Antonina Vitkovskaya says an improved version is due to hit the boutiques soon. "The new Mer will be a little bit different, but also be dynamic and unforgettable, like the man. Fashion changes, our lives change, Moscow changes. And Yuri Luzhkov himself also changes. So we thought we should reflect this change."
It remains to be seen, however, whether Luzhkov will still smell as good to voters in the months to come.