Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

a view from the couch

They are everywhere, every day, on every channel, one after the other. As Russians discover the free market and the world of banking and high finance, Russian bankers and financiers (as well as swindlers and mafia) have discovered television advertising. While I cannot claim to have done any kind of statistical analysis, I can tell by the frequency and the sheer variety of ads that advertising by banks and investment funds probably leads all other businesses in hours of airtime consumed -- and as the leading source of advertising revenue for Russian television. And, in a real sense, some of the financial advertising is positively surreal. Take for example many of the bank ads. In the West (and maybe in the East and Middle East), banks try to present an image of solidity founded on tradition (i.e. conservatism). Russian banks are no exception, and the result has been ads steeped in what they would like you to believe is history. One of the favorites of Russian banks is the late 19th-century look. One bank shows a gentleman in top hat and cigar in a variety of settings, from walking along the seashore, to sitting in his library where he finds a boomerang amongst the books. Still another ad assembles historical figures such as Stolypin, Tretyakov, Mamontov and others, who admit that their presence in one room at the same time is a historical impossibility, but that they in their time served Russia -- just like the bank they have been resurrected to advertise serves Russia today. And there is the ad purportedly tracing several generations of fathers and sons in the banking business through their photographs in the bank, with the youngest progeny always wearing a bowler hat that has been passed down over the years. What all of these ads gloss over, of course, is the last 75 years, a time during which none of them existed and in which there was no real currency -- only rubles (the definition of money being a currency which enables you to buy almost anything you want -- if only you have enough of the currency to match the seller's price). My favorite bank ad is the most recent to hit the airwaves, and coincidentally the only one in English that I have seen. A car makes its way through the Manhattan traffic, finally pulling up beside one of New York's finest to ask directions to the bank. The cop, his voice dripping Brooklyn, directs the driver to the airport and tells him when he gets to Sheremetyevo, to ask anyone there for "Kutuzovsky Prospekt, 3." "Moscow?" the slightly startled driver asks, "No problem. I love that bank." Then there are the ads for stocks and investment funds. Can you imagine what American or European television would be like if General Motors, Prudential-Bach Securities, or Nestl? continuously pitched their shares on the airwaves? It's a lot like Battle Creek, Michigan, in the early 20th century, when touts confronted people at the train station with not-so-tender offers to buy shares from the latest breakfast food speculator trying to become the next Post or Kellogg. Many of the firms whose television ads offer annual returns of 500 to 3,000 percent annually will one day suddenly disappear from the airwaves -- as well as from their offices. And no doubt some of the television personalities will be left with egg on their faces for having promoted a company that suddenly becomes the subject of police inquiries and the target of thousands of jilted babushki screaming for blood and a return to communism. MMM has perhaps the most reassuring approach in its ads, featuring common Russian folk who put down their money with some hesitation, wait a few weeks, and then redeem their shares when they can no longer stand the reproaches from their family. To their amazement, they find that they are some 10,000 to 40,000 rubles richer. The second phase of this ad campaign, now on the air, features some of the same old folks returning for another round of investing, much like the weekly retiree junkets to Las Vegas. However they are financing these shares, I hope for the country's sake -- as well as the television advertising industry -- that they and the others survive for many phases of ad campaigns, and can show old Olga and Ivan enjoying a comfortable retirement.