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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Selling Corporate Goodwill: Few Russians Buy

When Maxim Mussel and Igor Burenkov teamed up four years ago to develop Russia's first post-Soviet public-service announcement, they weren't trying to sell a product.

They just wanted to remind people to phone home once in a while.

For Mussel of Ladomir Advertising and Burenkov of Intellect Service, the pioneering foray into the field of public-service announcements was a short radio spot entitled "Call Your Parents."

The spot compares listeners to birds that have flown away from their parents' nest.

"They grow up and forget their parents," the narrator says. "Do you remember? Call your parents."

In the West, such a feel-good campaign would almost certainly have a corporate backer; but Mussel and Burenkov funded the spots from the budgets of their own ad agencies.

Mussel laughed off the idea of "public service" advertising in the vein of the U.S. company AT&T's reminders to call home, which he said Russians would never accept.

"If Russians saw a logo they wouldn't believe us and would see something sinister behind it," he said.

In the West, companies can often bolster the way the public perceives them by participating in so-called "social marketing," such as underwriting public-service announcements.

Like "Call Your Parents," these campaigns do not directly advertise a product. Instead, these short media spots can publicize a social cause, highlight a public-interest issue, or simply attempt to boost a society's sense of well-being.

But Russian advertising experts say that attaching a corporate logo to these good social causes may not work here in Russia. For now, firms have to be careful how they undertake such campaigns.

"The situation in Russia is different," said Mussel. "You can't put a logo on a [public announcement] spot like you could in the U.S."

In a country where political corruption, pyramid schemes and economic turmoil make many people think twice about those with money or authority, Russians are skeptical when they see that a corporate logo stands behind a message of goodwill. Memories of the Soviet era and its state-sponsored "public announcements" may also make Russians wary of the motive behind the message.

"If you speak about the U.S., they have a history" of public announcements, Mussel said. "But our people are suspicious."

Mussel said it will take a number of years to overcome this skepticism and that direct corporate sponsorship of such campaigns is still some time off. In the short-term, finding companies who will back ads anonymously is more of a challenge.

"It's very difficult to find real partners because they want to put their logos up," Mussel said. "But some companies are beginning to learn that you can't do this now."

Mussel said his company is beginning to work with some major clients who want to play by the Russian "rules" of sponsoring public service-type announcement anonymously.

How can companies expect, then, to gain public-relations points from their corporate goodwill?

Burenkov said companies should not expect direct thanks: "I believe companies should be known for other things and do this to help others out."

Mussel's formula for companies who want to get involved in such campaigns is to distribute diplomas that officially recognize the company and to host press conferences thanking the sponsor. The company will get the best mileage out of sponsoring such ads, he said, when the public hears about their involvement by word of mouth.

"People must know why you do it, that there is interest in the project and not the company," Mussel said. "I think the main idea of P. R. here is to change this country, and if big corporations help solve the problems here they'll end up helping themselves."

Dmitry Chukseyev, a spokesman for Coca-Cola in Moscow, which he said is exploring ways to become involved in public-service types of campaigns, said many banks that help publish textbooks for children make sure their company slogans appear as well.

"Personally when I see a textbook and see their logo, I think it's in bad taste," Chukseyev said. "If you want to do good for the city or make a donation you just do it and then people will know about it and that's enough. You can't mix the two [direct advertising and goodwill] together."

"I think there's a subconscious suspicion that if it's labeled, it's a phony," said Mikhail Kozareff, program director for Radio Maximum, who organized a series of announcements called "The Way Out," in which Western and Russian rock stars speak out against suicide, rape and drugs.

Kozareff said his station has lacked sponsorship for these spots: Since there is not yet the level of public awareness of these issues here as there is in other countries, advertisers are reluctant to join an empty bandwagon.

When Mussel and Burenkov first teamed up to distribute a tape of "Call Your Parents" in late 1992, television and radio stations refused them, thinking there had to be a catch.

When they were finally able to convince the media to air such announcements for free, interest in their public announcements soon took off.

The ad has become so popular that the Russian mass media have broadcast it across the country. Television comedy shows are even making jokes about it -- a sure sign that an advertisement in Russia has effectively entered the public consciousness.

"Call Your Parents" has captured numerous ad awards, including a second-place finish at Moscow's Sixth International Advertising Festival last month, the first time radio announcements were included in those awards, and a golden prize for being one of the best metro posters last year. The company has released two more public announcements and is working on their fourth.

As demonstrated at this year's international advertising festival, many Russian campaigns are focusing on good images without any reference to a product or sponsor.

One high-profile project that has brought together a number of the leading lights of Russia's film industry is ORT's Russian Project, a series of one-minute television slots that the station airs during prime time.

These clips, which usually portray common people in emotional scenes, have featured actor-directors Nikita Mikhalkov and Vladimir Mashkov, and actors Oleg Yefremov and Anastasiya Vertinsaya. In one spot, a soldier stands rigid, unable to wave to his mother. He finally sheds a tear and raises his hand.

"This is very important [for the people] because it doesn't belong to anyone, and no one makes money," said Russian film producer Denis Yevstigneyev, the producer of the series.

However, Burenkov said these ads are not public announcements that benefit the people in concrete ways or with specific information -- they focus on image, rather than substance.

"This is drama, more like an opera than public interest," said Burenkov. "There should be a social function. In the West, public interest ads appear to wake people up."