Commercial advertising is a very powerful force today. Although Russian advertising is far younger than its western counterpart, it nevertheless influences Russians' consciousness to no less an extent than politics or mass culture. Indeed, it became integrated with them last century. Is this good or bad? In reality, it is a natural process. Russia has come closer with the West and is following it on the road the West has travelled. Of course, we Russians would like our kids to quote poetry instead of repeating advertising slogans, but we cannot help their obsession with the TV and its endless commercials.
Advertisements manipulate the public mind, many people claim. If we look at political advertising, which is again getting ready to disseminate many myths in the coming election campaign, then we have to acknowledge that they are right. Candidates will certainly forget their promises once they become deputies. However, this happens all over the entire world, so Russia is no exception.
Advertising has traditionally played a most important social and political role: it turns consumption into a substitute of democracy. The choice of what to eat, drink, wear and drive has taken the place of political choice. In other words, advertising is responsible for a great illusion, i.e. free choice for consumers. It helps conceal everything that is undemocratic in present-day society. In Russia, this illusion is really strong only in Moscow, where living standards are higher. The provinces are poor, and many households get by on a monthly income of a hundred dollars.
Russian TV commercials often assume the duties of the health and education ministries as they advertise healthy living and the ABC of cleanliness. In fact, children are learning the basics of hygienic rules not in the family, at school or from the health ministry, but increasingly frequently from the television, with its witty and catchy rhymes about soap, toothpaste and deodorants. Teenagers get information about safe sex from advertising spots.
Despite all that, TV commercials are often irritating as they appear month in, month out interrupting programmes all too often. They often advertise goods that are too expensive for many people as well. Moreover, their choice of language is not too everyone's tastes. Still, efforts to ban commercials cutting into programmes are futile, and parliamentarians who further this cause are, in fact, involved in self-promotion. Their initiatives are fiercely fought by television companies, which receive steady revenues from commercials (a minute-long advertisement at prime time costs tens of thousand dollars). Indeed, TV serials are written with account for adverts. As it happens, some commercials are much more interesting than the serials they interrupt and when they encourage healthy habits, they can only be welcomed. Many commercials re-create historical or mythological scenes, refer to literary masterpieces or, again, quote verse to give them respectability and highbrow appeal. Ads come as heirs to long-established visual arts when they play up celebrated canvases or statues. Still, commercial art is victim of public prejudice in and outside Russia alike. Just why?
The reason lies in commercials being in the foreground of public attention-unlike, painting, for example. An aggressive kind of creativity by definition, advertising causes a response from the public. Russians frequently rail against advertising, because examples of it are everywhere: on street posters and eye-catching billboards, promotions catching busy shoppers and metro passengers unawares, leaflets stuffing your mailbox, and uncalled-for information overflowing the web.
All this is really tiring, but is it surprising? Not in the least. It is a sign of Russia's economic progress. The advert is the heart and soul of capitalism and the advertising sector's rapid growth reflects the general surge in the economy. It is pointless and thoroughly wrong to deny the impact of advertising on everyday habits. Few Russians drank table water even quite recently, but now bottles are a constant fixture in almost every office. Yoghurts have become part and parcel of the Russian diet thanks to ads. There are numerous other examples, such as lipstick, fashion magazines, fireplaces etc. Advertising is one of the most successful tools of globalisation as it promotes Western standards in other countries. Russia is no exception in this respect. A "Russian idea" is under-represented in advertising. There are only occasional glimpses of history, such as mediaeval warriors, merchants and learned monks relishing beer, idyllic peasants offering dairy products, or Tzars praising banks in TV commercials.
Ads impose behavioural patterns on us, whether we like it or not. They occasionally exercise a bad influence, especially with regard to young people, who are the easiest to manipulate. Certain physicians and psychologists blame advertisements for boys and girls chain smoking and beer drinking, as they believe adverts make those unhealthy habits out to be prestigious and fashionable.
Manufacturers should fight this trend more than advertisers. Everyone knows the power of tobacco and brewing lobbies. This is no point accusing advertisers of undermining public morality. After all, the same charge can be levelled at literature and the arts; it would be enough to recall some explicit scenes in the work of Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy or Maupassant.
Advertisements always reflect social trends. The sexual revolution found its way into commercials only after it had become established in the community. But then, even though Russia has outstripped many countries for looseness of public morals, we are by no means a permissive society. People in the Russian provinces try to avert their eyes off commercials for sanitary towels and lingerie.
Good commercials are never impure, even when they advertise a radio company for sexual minorities. The advertising business has ethical rules of its own -- an international advertising code, which the International Chamber of Commerce adopted in 1937. Russian advertisers have voluntarily signed it. Russian legislation makes similar provisions, too. The law tolerates only such ads that are aboveboard, decent and truthful. An honest advertisement always sticks to these requirements.
Vladimir YEVSTAFYEV, President of the Russian Advertising Agencies Association