Ad Agency Nixes Billboards Satirizing Crisis

A radio station's advertising campaign needling officials and lampooning the government's anti-crisis measures has been largely shelved after an advertising firm deemed the content "too offensive and provocative."

The radio station Business FM had planned to roll out a series of billboard ads in Moscow using its frequency as the satirical answer to several trivia questions related to politics and the government's measures to combat the economic crisis, the station's parent company, United Media, said Tuesday.

Among the questions are: "What percentage of government officials take bribes?"; "How much will the dollar cost in the summer?"; and "How many days will the government last?" Another question reads, "How much money will they give Deripaska?"

The ads give the answers to all of the questions as 87.5, Business FM's frequency.

Oleg Deripaska's United Company RusAl has found itself in dire straits as it struggles to pay off its debt of $14.8 billion, including $8 billion due this year. The state gave it a $4.5 billion bailout last fall but has said it should not count on any more money.

United Media had planned to place the ads on 40 billboards throughout Moscow in April through the advertising agency Gallery, but after seeing the ad modules last week Gallery informed the company that it was nixing its involvement in the campaign, United Media head Daniil Kupsin said Tuesday.

"They told us the Moscow Advertising Committee would not allow them to put up the ads," Kupsin said.

Gallery spokeswoman Yekaterina Belousova denied that her company had made the claim, saying it was an internal company decision. "Our lawyers looked at the slogans and determined them to be offensive and provocative," Belousova told The Moscow Times.

Repeated calls to officials at the Moscow Advertising Committee went unanswered Tuesday.

Gallery had planned to provide space on 40 billboards to Business FM as a free gift celebrating the radio station's two-year anniversary, it said in an e-mailed statement.

The government has been sensitive about public criticism of its anti-crisis measures and visibly concerned about possible social unrest stemming from the economy's downward turn.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned critics in February against using the crisis to spread discontent and incite citizens to challenge the government.

Last week, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said protests in the Far East over the government's decision to set prohibitively high duties on imports of used Japanese cars -- thus backing domestic carmakers -- represented "attempts from the inside and outside ... to undermine the country."

Federal laws forbid the placement of advertisements containing "incorrect" or "unconscionable" information.

"The content of some of these ads is on the edge," said Andrei Beryozkin, head of advertising market research agency Espar-Analitik. "But whether they are legal or not is only for the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service to decide."

Upon receiving the news of Gallery's rejection and the possible City Hall censorship of the ads, three other outdoor media companies backed out of their agreements with Business FM, said Pavel Todosichuk, a brand manager for United Media.

"Nobody understands satire anymore," said Dmitry Solopov, the radio station's creative director responsible for the campaign.

At least one company, Gavrilov Brothers, has agreed to place the ads, Todosichuk said.

Business FM is already in discussions with other outdoor advertising agencies, Solopov said.

"One agency said they wanted to take the project over but for an extra fee," Solopov said. "When I asked why the extra fee, they said, 'So we will at least be suffering for something.'"

The Business FM billboard campaign is not the first to court controversy in Moscow.

In 2003, city billboards showed the three-pronged euro symbol mounting the dollar sign -- until they were banned by the authorities as obscene.

Electronics giant Eldorado provoked a storm with a billboard campaign for a discounted vacuum cleaner. The billboards, which showed a woman vacuuming, read, "I suck for kopeks!"