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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

the Invasion from Mars

Heard the latest knee-slapper making the rounds of Russian elementary schools?

Question: What happened to Snickers when it came to Russia?

Answer: It lost weight.

To get the joke, you have to know the advertising slogan that has saturated the Russian airwaves -- that Snickers is covered with "a fat, fat layer of chocolate."

Kids know the commercial. So do adults. They know the jingle so well that quips about fat, fat layers of chocolate have started to turn up in would-be witty headlines and even in speeches in parliament.

"Snickers is becoming a kind of a symbol," said Dmitry Ivliyev, consumer affairs reporter for the daily Izvestia. "Not only of Western life -- I'd call it a symbol of our new times."

In the new Russia that President Bill Clinton visited this month, some of the Western companies that slavered over potential Soviet sales as the Iron Curtain came down are beginning to make major inroads across the Russian expanse -- and into the Russian consciousness.

Snickers and its Mars Inc. cousins -- Bounty, Mars bars, Twix and Milky Way -- appear to have penetrated the Russian market far beyond any other U.S. consumer product. Hawked by the most extensive advertising campaign here since the demise of Communist propaganda, they are turning up across the heartland, from the Altai region in the southeast to Bryansk in the west.

Freezer wagons selling ice-cream versions of the Mars treats stand on corner after corner along St. Petersburg's central Nevsky Prospekt. Moscow schools in wealthier districts are strewn with the wrappers on days the cafeteria stocks the candies.

Demand is so high that chocolate thieves recently hijacked a Mars truck in central Moscow, grabbing tons of Mars and Snickers bars worth about $39,000. Teenagers have been overheard computing prices in Snickers -- "That would cost three Snickers!" -- and Russians near the Chinese border reportedly consider the ability to buy two Snickers bars per week a sign that a person has solidly reached the middle class.

In the old Soviet Union, Russians could buy a taste of America mainly through Marlboro cigarettes, which were sold only for dollars and so highly valued that a pack could be used as virtual currency with cabbies and officials.

It is the humble Snickers bar, selling at 50 cents each or so, that has conquered the new Russians, who cast off communism in hopes of living like Americans. They may not be able yet to afford the big cars and houses, but the junk food, at least, is already within reach.

The Snickers success story is even more surprising here, considering that Russians already have plenty to tempt their notorious sweet tooth. They consume all kinds of more traditional cakes, ice cream and candies, including their own snack bars, which tend to feature darker, more bitter chocolate.

But Mars has found a distinctly American way to create a voracious appetite for its products through the kind of powerful, mercilessly repetitive advertising that has been pervasive in the United States for decades and is only now beginning here.

Starting in 1992 with billboards that irritated many consumers by advertising Mars products even before they were available in most stores, the campaign moved on last year to a television blitz the likes of which Russians had never seen. One Russian retail trade specialist said it seemed to him that not one television hour went by without a Mars commercial.

With its near-universal name recognition, Snickers is also becoming a lightning rod for Russian sentiment focused against the West, against the difficulties of the new era. The hard-line Moskovskaya Pravda recently ran an editorial lambasting President Boris Yeltsin's reformers for claiming to care about the country while in fact, it said, they were more concerned about taking foreign trips and building themselves luxurious houses.

"They flooded the country with chocolate bars," it said as an example of ill-considered ideas, "and now when you ask schoolchildren to name the planets, they quickly answer, 'Mars, Snickers ... '"

Another newspaper ran a cartoon that depicted a poster proclaiming Snickers the best antidote to hunger -- with an emaciated man clearly dead of starvation lying beneath it.

This anti-Western sentiment may contribute to Mars officials' total refusal to talk about the company's Russian success and controversy. Masterfoods, the Mars arm in Russia, refused to comment even briefly on how it has managed to spread its distribution network across Russia's breadth where many others have failed.

A spokesman said that it was too "commercially sensitive" and that he would be disappointed if Masterfoods were even mentioned in this article. The Mars headquarters in McLean, Virginia, was equally closemouthed, in keeping with its reputation for extreme secrecy. Industry sources have long joked that Central Intelligence Agency based in nearby Langley houses only the second most secretive bunch in northern Virginia.

A Russian expert on retail trade said that Mars might be especially reluctant to talk in part because it was badly burned by a phony story in the Russian media about a poisoned Snickers bar that allegedly killed a little girl in Voronezh, about 500 kilometers south of Moscow. The story ran in a local newspaper and was picked up by national television, he said, in what he believed to be a sign that the battle for the Russian chocolate market was growing so nasty that a competitor tried to sabotage Snickers to cut its early lead.

Although the Mars products' distribution was indeed impressive, he said, the company was apparently plagued by difficulties in getting candy bars out of Moscow, where they are warehoused. He said dealers who are supposed to truck the candy to the provinces often fail to fulfill their agreements and try to sell the bars in the city instead, at higher profit, keeping the Moscow market glutted.

Ultimately, he added, the Mars dealer network is strong -- but the real key to the candy's success has been the nonstop advertising.

Whether Snickers will remain affordable depends in large part on whether the Russian government decides to heed the calls from domestic industry to impose tariffs on imported consumer goods. The government has been considering such tariffs, particularly on cars, but not out of the anti-Western sentiment that Snickers and its ilk sometimes provoke.

Instead, the tariffs would stem from what the former economics minister, Yegor Gaidar, has described as a great success -- that imported goods have become so cheap they are creating competition for monopolistic Russian producers.

When the tariff hike looked likely in December, the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper reported on it with a headline reading, "Goodbye Snickers and Your Fat, Fat Layer of Chocolate." Word was that food, which was duty-free, would be subject to a 20 percent tariff.

The tariff increase now appears unlikely. The newspaper Commersant noted that: "Despite the strong pressure of factory lobbyists, it seems the government decided to consider the interests of all consumers... more important."

The threat of tariffs may have receded, but Snickers faces a bigger menace -- from competitors, including Cadbury and Nestle. They are already hustling their own sweets on the airwaves and in the stores, taking advantage of the market Mars created.

There are, however, no Cadbury or Nestle jokes yet, while the Mars repertoire is turning into a rich collection.

Carey Goldberg is a Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.