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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Watch the Commercials

Advertising is the engine of commerce. This definition is well-known, even among those who have virtually no practical experience living in a market economy. It is also generally known that advertising long ago became something more than mere information about products and services. It has become a means of directing and forming consumer demand and a key to competitive success.

Finally, especially in the age of television, advertising has become not simply an enormous industry in its own right, but one of the most important components of popular culture, a kind of pseudo-ideology for a pluralistic and de-ideologized society of consumer demand. In this sense, advertising can be compared to traditional, official ideologies which have functioned to support (and even restrain) governments. Although an individual can try to treat such ideologies with skepticism or humor and even attempt to ignore them, these efforts are doomed to failure. In reality, when advertising -- or any other ideology -- follows you virtually everywhere, it is practically impossible, especially for children, to avoid its effects.

Russia is now entering into this brave, new world without any preparation, inasmuch as the widespread shortages of the old Soviet economy made advertising something of a moot point. Of course, we did have billboards with slogans like, "Fly the planes of Aeroflot!" but this hardly seems like advertising when all it really did was make people ask, "As opposed to what other planes?" Therefore, it is interesting to take a look at where we stand after nearly three years of gradually moving toward a market economy.

Television commercials are the most expensive but most effective form of advertising. In Russia, the most significant "masterpieces" of this genre show most clearly that advertisers are sparing no expense, though the purpose of their creations is not to inform the public about the activity of their firms. Instead, these advertisements are creating a new mythology, one that is clearly not directed at the educated or critical viewer.

Several companies have adopted the tactic of presenting pseudo-philosophic profundities. For example, in one commercial, a slovenly, bearded man who looks to be homeless, proclaims: "It doesn't take a lot of effort to decide to do something. Deciding what to do -- that's what takes effort." The absurdity of this idea is obvious: Is it more difficult to decide to build a house or to actually build one? If there is a sphere were such a statement might make any sense, it is the sphere of dubious financial manipulations, but this activity really does not call for advertising.

And then there is the notorious series of advertisements for MMM. The directors skillfully created an entire "quasi-world" which, in its simplicity and primitiveness, rivaled the worlds created by Soviet propaganda. In an effort to make this television reality more "real," the creators of these films even incorporated the popular star of television's "Simply Maria."

And what can be said about the expensive pseudo-historical commercials for Imperial Bank? Perhaps it really is beneficial for the average Russian to live out world history in his or her imagination, forgetting their daily concerns by taking in episodes from the lives of Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Napoleon and Catherine the Great. But, one might reasonably ask, what does that have to do with Imperial Bank? If the bank is really concerned with the level of our knowledge of history, why doesn't it underwrite some legitimate educational program? But it staggers the imagination to suppose that these historic personalities have anything in common with the entirely unknown activities of this bank with its incredibly pretentious name.

These dubious achievements in the field of television advertising on the part of Imperial Bank, it seems, inspired the firm Germes to create its "Slavic Cycle," which is no less expensive but most likely can be considered even more tasteless than its predecessor. Just take a look at the mighty Slavic princes depicted in these advertisements, with skulls strong enough to break rocks with ease. Germes, apparently, thinks that such heads should serve as the standard for our present-day political and commercial leaders.

But the record for absurdity was reached by another commercial from this same Slavic Cycle. This one depicts an international conference of major world powers set in the year 2200. The representative of the Russian government at this important conference turns out to be a little boy, about seven years old. No one, though, objects to this since, "Who wants to spoil relations with the richest and most influential country in the world?" Well, if the managers of one of the biggest firms in Russia are putting such inane images on our television screens, it seems unlikely that Russia is ever going to become the world leader in any significant category.

In short, advertising in Russia far too often takes the form of a parody of normal advertising. It would be too bad if we ended up trading in our old caricatured Soviet ideology for an equally distorted caricature of the forms of the market economy and of serious business.

But maybe I am being too critical. I should confess that there may be an explanation for my attitude. When I see what kinds of things Germes is spending its money on, I get particularly upset: For more than half the year I have been unsuccessful in collecting the approximately $20 that Germes owes me as the dividend for my single share, which I obtained by trading in my voucher and my mother's. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Konstantin Zuyev is a senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.