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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Models Pose in Nothing but Their Cellphones

MegafonOne of the photographs in Penthouse
By dangling its mobile phones from the necks of Penthouse models, some advertising experts say that Megafon -- the No. 3 mobile telephone operator -- is following an honorable tradition that was born in the studio of Russia's most famous film director.

He may not have known it, but by hand-painting crimson communist flags into his black-and-white classic "Battleship Potemkin," Sergei Eisenstein was tapping the power of a hitherto undiscovered advertising technology.

"This was true product placement," said Vadim Byrkin, general director of the Anno Domini company, in a telephone interview. "It was the advertisement of communist values."

Though Eisenstein is revered in the West, it's unlikely that his tactic of communist propaganda led straight to E.T. munching on Reese's Pieces.

But when sales of Reese's Pieces skyrocketed by 65 percent following the candy's placement in the movie "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," companies (especially Mars, the makers of M&Ms, which turned down the chance to appear in the movie) woke up to the possibilities.

Now the latest Hollywood films draw fire for containing too many ads. The 1997 James Bond flick "Tomorrow Never Dies" was loaded with product placements: Visa Card, Avis Car rentals, BMW cars and motorcycles, Smirnoff vodka, Heineken beer, Omega watches, Ericsson cellphones and L'Oreal makeup.

And critics suggested that "Die Another Day," the most recent Bond film -- in which the spy switches his preference to Finlandia vodka -- would better be titled "Buy Another Day."

By comparison, Russia's product placement market is in an early stage of development. But a number of agencies are devoted to getting companies' wares on the air, into magazines and even into novels.

"One of the key advances is that now Russian companies are concluding annual contracts for product placement servicing," said Pavel Shvaikovsky, a producer with TVIN, a product placement agency. "The technology is being accepted, and while the attitude initially was 'well, lets give it a shot,' now companies are including this in their marketing plan."

Well-known Russian brands often appear in TV series like "Menty" and "Ulitsy Razbitykh Fonarei."

And in a union like that between Samsung and the "Matrix" movie franchise, Panasonic will place its mobile phones in the upcoming gangster picture "Antikiller 2," while the movie's actors will anchor the company's advertising campaigns.

For Megafon, playing catch-up with two well-established domestic operators -- MTS and Vimpelcom -- can't be compared to Eisentstein's goal of promoting the international revolution.

But analysts say the company has its work cut out.

"In terms of getting subscribers, yes, its tough," said Alexander Kazbegi, telecommunications analyst at Renaissance Capital. "Megafon is coming late into a market that is 60 percent penetrated."

In Moscow, where Megafon has yet to earn a profit, MTS and Vimpelcom had 4.1 million and 4.4 million subscribers, respectively, at the end of June, compared to Megafon's 440,000, according to Renaissance Capital data.

"To be frank: How do you differentiate yourself?" Kazbegi said. "OK, you have a different tariff plan. But so what? Everyone will probably match it some day."

With nudity, Megafon executives may have found a way to stand out.

The July-August issue of Penthouse features two series of photographs in which Megafon's trademark is subtly--and sometimes not-so-subtly--incorporated.

Two dancers from Moscow's Flash cabaret are pictured relaxing at Turkey's popular Bodrum resort.

In one photograph, a woman with a Megafon bag on her arm inspects a bra in one of the hotel's boutiques. In another, a telephone bearing the company logo hangs from the woman's neck as she reclines in a peddle-boat.

Karina, the brunette featured in a second series of photographs, has secreted a Megafon Nokia in her underwear.

The fact that the magazine's cover announces "Megafon -- Pioneer of Mobile Erotica" means that the product placement is less "pure" than other examples where the relationship is not so prominent, said Byrkin of the Anno Domini agency.

But Byrkin acknowledged that at only a few thousand dollars, this is a cost-effective way of drawing attention to a product.

Roman Prokolov, adviser to Megafon's general director, said the location for the shoot had been carefully chosen to highlight the launch of the company's multimedia messaging, or MMS roaming services, in Turkey this May.

MMS allows subscribers to exchange photographs and short video clips, and, as Prokolov explained, "the new Megafon technologies make the fantasies with the magazine's heroines all the more picturesque. You can meet a girl on holiday, take photographs and send them to your mother."

This is not the first time Megafon has collaborated with Penthouse.

The company's multimedia messaging service -- MMS Klubnichka, or "strawberry," which beams Penthouse images to subscribers' telephones -- has proven to be more popular than its MMS weather updates.

"It has more variety than the weather here in Moscow," Prokolov said.

And there was another reason for the service's success, he said. About 70 percent of Megafon subscribers are men between the ages of 24 and 40.

Hotels, vodkas, whiskies, car stereos and motorbikes have all been featured in Penthouse photoshoots before, but Penthouse commercial director Andrei Protopopov said this was the first time a mobile phone operator had placed its brand with the magazine.

Protopopov said that the collaboration will continue. Penthouse has slated its second Megafon shoot to run in the September issue of the magazine.

"We have invited representatives of Megafon to choose the models with us," Protopopov said. This time the women will be selected from the Amazonki club.

And Prokolov said that "almost nude" girls welcomed guests to the opening party for Megafon's new customer service center on Myasnitskaya Ulitsa on Wednesday.

Megafon subscribers will be able to admire the work of Penthouse photographer Pyotr Anikin as they pay their phone bills in the new office, he said.

MTS and Vimpelcom are not rushing to follow Megafon's lead, though both have dipped their toes into the telecommunications market's more torrid waters, albeit sometimes inadvertently.

MTS representatives said that titillation was not the goal when the company aired a TV advertisement in which a man's clothes vanish. Prudish feedback from Channel One and Rossia television was unwarranted, a spokesman in the company's advertising department said.

"We believe that we can get to our clients by other means," the spokesman said. So far, the company has not been tempted to "exploit the idea that an interest in technology and an interest in erotica converge."

Despite offering a Kama Sutra-themed text-messaging service, Beeline only places standard advertisements with Playboy magazine, Vimpelcom public relations spokesman Artyom Minayev said.

"We are not targeting lovers of so-called strawberries," he said.

But for Megafon, embracing nontraditional advertising methods such as product placement could be the tactic that gives the company an edge on Russia's fiercely competitive telecommunications market.

"It's all about branding and image," said Kazbegi of Renaissance Capital. "You know, some cheesiness could be welcomed by the local subscriber community."