Why The Soviet Union Advertised Products That Didn’t Exist

May 4, 2022 0 comments

The purpose of commercials is to advertise products and drive sales, but in Soviet Russia under communism they served an altogether different and totally useless purpose. The Soviet Union was a planned economy where all industries were controlled by the state. There was no private sectors and no competition, and hence the tools that apply in a free market had no place in a state-controlled economy. Yet, consumer goods were still advertised on the television.

“Between 1967 and 1991 the Soviet Union’s sole advertising agency produced literally thousands of commercials, pitching products that state owned companies did not produce and had absolutely no intention of producing”, writes Rakesh Krishnan Simha for Russia Beyond.

They advertised such non-existent products as minced chicken, hot-air shower and double layered toilet seats. All of these ads were produced by the Estonia-based Eesti Reklaamfilm (ERF). In just over two decades, ERF made over 6,000 commercials for all manner of goods, both real and fictitious.

But why?

“That is the absurdity of the planned economy,” explains Hardi Volmer, who co-directed a documentary about ERF entitled The Gold Spinners. “There was a fixed number for almost everything - for production, for consumption and for advertising. All the rest is adjusting the reality to the planned numbers - and that was pretty hard sometimes. So if there was a fixed plan that 1% of the budget of every Soviet company was to be spent on advertising, then the money had to be spent. Whether the clips were of high or low quality, or whether they worked at all - no one cared, really.”

The first commercial advertising was aired in the Soviet Union in 1964. It featured an animated gang of sweet corn on the cob, singing songs along with a chef promoting healthy eating habits. If you want to be healthy and make it to 100 years, your diet should include corn, the actor sang. According to those TV ads, Soviet housewives could cook anything they wanted using corn, from salads and soups to sweet puddings and cakes.

Promoting corn as a healthy food was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s idea. Inspired by the US’s highly successful corn production, Khrushchev wanted to turn the country into the world’s second-largest corn producer. Right from the very start, advertisement was just another tool for propaganda.

“By and large, commercials did not promote or sell anything other than the current agenda, the official ideology,” says Lyubov Platonova, an award-winning TV producer of the arts channel Rossiya Kultura.

At other times it was used “to project a narrative of abundance onto a population that was accustomed to experiencing scarcity,” writes Australian magazine Smith Journal.

After Leonid Brezhnev overtook Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader pushed the industry to focus on consumer goods, and herein ERF founder Peedu Ojamaa, who produced propaganda films for party officials, saw an opportunity. Then ERF landed a windfall when Moscow mandated that all Soviet companies had to spend one percent of their revenue on advertising.

“ERF and the Soviet companies it represented did not work together the way clients and advertising agencies do in a market economy,” explains Rakesh Krishnan Simha. “Under the Soviet system, the company bosses, who were essentially communist party flunkies, would hand Ojamaa a script, which offered a guide for ERF to work on. But the creatives at ERF produced whatever ads they wanted, and when the party bosses reviewed the films, everyone pretended everything was just fine. Basically, nobody cared. After all, if the products were real, they would sell anyway in a country where shortages were widespread. If the ads were pitching ghost products, it again didn't matter, as there was nothing to sell.”

According to South Journal, “Most products were portrayed in a way that made them seem as if they were utterly cutting edge. 'It’s easy to use,' spouts an actor in one commercial about margarine. 'Just spread it on a slice of bread'!”

They were also shot on exotic locations featuring beautiful women: “Milk advertisements were made against the background of the glamorous Alps; Soviet cars were shown meandering through the streets of Paris; and Estonian actors were transported to faraway bazaars just to be captured eating a couple of grapes.”

Despite the fact that nobody could ever get in their hands the products advertised, the ads themselves became wildly popular. Viewers would wait for them between regular programing. In fact, they became so popular that the television network introduced a 20-minute block of program every Saturday afternoon containing nothing but ads played back to back.

“The Soviet ads simply ignored the idea of selling a product or targeting certain consumers, thus making the ads themselves the product to be consumed,” writes Retro Soviet Ads.

The ads were also classified as documentaries, for a documentary fetched more money than commercial films.  Kiur Aarma, who co-directed The Gold Spinners, explains: “The main reason for the “documentary” style was purely financial - in the planned economy every product or service had it's own fixed price, set somewhere at some ministry. As the commercial films were something completely new as a notion, they didn't have that fixed price for them. So the producers from the ERF described them as 'documentary films' - and got paid for every 2-minutes clip as they would have been paid for a 60-minutes documentary film.”

ERF churned out so many commercials that it drew international attention and in 1985 it was invited to the Cannes advertising festival, where it bagged the Bronze Lion for an ad about conserving energy at home.

“Even in that moment of crowning glory there was irony as the Soviet Union was the world’s largest producer of energy and its second largest exporter. Conserving energy was way down the list of priorities in the Soviet Union,” writes Rakesh Krishnan Simha.

Like all things communist, ERF’s money train came to a crunching halt when the Soviet Union collapsed and the market opened up. Russian television was flooded with foreign commercials advertising real products. The length of the clips was also dramatically reduced into short clips a few seconds long, and commercial ads began to appear in a certain time slot. The ERF eventually went bankrupt in 1992.

Of the nearly 6000 commercial films shot, only about 300 films survive today. One of them was even featured in the Hollywood movie Borat.


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