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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Background Music for the Oldest Profession

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Some aging wit once said that he would wake up in the morning, check the obituary column, and if his name weren't in it, he would get out of bed.

Working in Moscow's murky media market is something like that. You come into the office and look at The Moscow Times. First, glance at the ruble rate and check the price of oil — which is more or less the same thing. Then you make sure that Ostankino isn't smoking, that NTV's weathergirl isn't in prison and that the Duma hasn't banned bread — "We managed perfectly well without food in Soviet times."

Only after this daily ritual do we turn on the phones and see if any clients want to indulge in the questionable business of selling products. After all, not for nothing did the founder of EURO RSCG, Jacques Seguela, call his autobiography "Don't Tell My Mother I Work in Advertising: She Thinks I Play Piano in a Brothel."

Tickling the ivories at a bordello and helping to sell cigarettes are very similar professions: They both provide background music to the world's oldest profession — trade.

It is Russia's aversion to trade that is central to the problem of developing the Russian economy. No nation was ever ruined by trade, wrote Benjamin Franklin. The British and the Dutch understand this and have become richer than their population and natural resources would seem to make possible. Despite winning the 1992 election by criticizing George Bush the elder's overseas obsession, Bill Clinton encouraged external trade and helped fuel the U.S. boom of the 1990s.

Trade is the engine of capitalism, and advertising is the oil in the capitalist car. The car will run for a time without it, but if you don't check the oil regularly your Volga will soon grind to a halt. Advertising smoothes the process but it is not an elixir. As advertising guru Bill Bernbach said, "A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it's bad."

Advertising is a difficult profession to defend. Our critics tell us that we sell products people don't want and cannot afford. It is difficult to respond by downplaying the power of advertising without calling into question the service we sell our clients.

It is a common misconception that we advertise to sell products. We advertise to create or maintain profit margins. Philip Morris and friends do not want to sell more cigarettes in fomer communist countries. They want to sell more expensive cigarettes. We don't want Russians to drink vodka for a mere $5 a bottle when we can sell them Swedish vodka in a silly bottle for $20. "The story of Absolut is the perfect illusion of a con trick that is modern advertising — the creation of something out of nothing," wrote The Economist just recently.

The Scots have always understood the power of marketing. Few people are interested in a large lake but slip a fictitious monster into the waters and you have an instant tourist industry in the worst climate in Europe. Who can imagine paying $50 for a bottle of barley water? But give it a decade or more of aging and a few centuries of dubious history and you can't make enough of the stuff. Even family Tartans were a Victorian invention. You can sell a $1,000 skirt to American tourists with names like Kirk Douglas even though they were born Issur Danielovich Demsky.

Life is more fun with advertising. We sell aspirations. Every time you light up a Malboro you can pretend you are in the Wild West even if the closest you will ever get to a cowboy is when you get your bathroom fixed.

But whenever Russia's experiment with pseudo-capitalism looks like it's failing to bring the riches promised, it's always simpler to shoot the messenger. Russians however have always understood the power of the message. The current exhibition at the Museum of the Contemporary History of Russia chronicles the Soviet attempt to get Russians off the bottle. The communists were happy to turn to advertising to achieve this goal. Its failure shows the profession's redundancy when faced with strong consumer demand. People, especially when their lives are as miserable as they often are in Russia, will always smoke and drink. The best way to combat this is to give them better lives. The best way to give people better lives is to encourage free trade and business. And business requires promotion and advertising.

My apologies for the lecture, but let's summarize how the West was really won and how the West won the Cold War. We allowed people to make things. If somebody came up with a better or new way of making something we allowed them to compete. To inform people of these new products, we advertised them — originally with posters and later with newspapers, radio and, finally, television. And if a company became too successful in its field and appeared to stifle competition we broke it up. First and most famously, this happened to Standard Oil. Now Microsoft seems to be undergoing the procedure. All this activity provided work for millions of people. This wealth provided a tax base from which we could improve the environment for more wealth creation. Or, put better by Calvin Coolidge, "The chief business of the American people is business."

A seemingly simple recipe for capitalism. And one that the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Estonians appear to be having few problems following. Allow people to trade freely, advertise freely and speak freely, and everyone gets richer. But clearly Russia's Duma deputies would rather enrich themselves than the miserable peasants who in the words of Igor Chubais (yes, a relation) are viewed by the nomenklatura as "simply an annoying, tiresome nuisance, which, moreover, for some reason has to be paid wages."

To be fair to the deputies, they are no different from many politicians in the West. British Prime Minister Tony Blair blames tobacco advertising for teenage smoking. This theory ignores the rise in consumption in countries that have banned the promotion of cigarettes or the decline in smoking in countries that have recently begun to advertise. Banning advertising is more dramatic and less expensive than spending money on education.

The French blame Hollywood for the spread of the English language and ban film companies from advertising on television — despite the fact that the films are dubbed into French anyway. Perhaps the decline of French as a diplomatic language has more to do with the decline of France as a world power. If it weren't for the Yanks, we'd all be speaking — well you know the rest.

The Scandinavians are planning to ban advertising targeted to children. Santa may be seeking alternative employment next Christmas once Swedish children instantly forget their love of toys. Never mind. He can always console himself with a silly bottle of Swedish vodka once the Russians finally give up drinking the stuff.

Gareth Brown is managing director of Initiative Media in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.