16 July 2009, 14:17

History of Russian advertising

History of Russian advertising

It may seem at first sight that Russian advertising is non-existent. However, that's not true. Russian advertising is now more than 150 years old and, like any other advertising, it obeys certain rules. But first — some preliminary remarks. We know that advertising has a certain number of stages.

It may seem at first sight that Russian advertising is non-existent. However, that's not true. Russian advertising is now more than 150 years old and, like any other advertising, it obeys certain rules. But first — some preliminary remarks.

We know that advertising has a certain number of stages. It actually begins with a simple enumeration of goods and services. But as the market develops, it becomes necessary for producers to stand out against their competitors. Here they can say they either propagate some exclusive foreign goods or simply state they are the best. The truth at this stage is not very important, what really matters is the ability to attract potential clients. When the least fortunate are ruined and the competition slackens, advertising gets more informative. The luckiest don't have to advertise at all because their name guarantees the quality of their product.

Then others try to fake the brand name and it starts all over again. Things like this happened many times over the 150 years of Russian advertising.

Early in the 19th century, there existed two major ways of attracting potential clients, namely via advertisements and signboards. The ads were usually more informative and less irritating than the signboards, and their variety was well on a par with what we can see today.

Books topped the list of the early-19th century advertisements. Ads like "How to Become Rich, Cheerful, Happy, Healthy and Longlived", "How to Be Always Loved by Your Husband”, “The Best Dowry for Young Girls Who Want to Be Happily Married”. And also “The Best Possible Way to Cure Any Illness With a Mixture of Salt and French Vodka”, “No More Hemorrhoids” or “You’ve Lost It” or even “Popular Medicine Book, or How to Treat Different Maladies with Home-Made Remedies, Without a Doctor, and Also Some Advice on How to Remain in Good Health” (Translated from French by Prince Parfeny Engalychev).

Those interested in spectacular performances could be attracted by the following ads: "Olympic Circus", "Mechanical, Optical and Magical Tricks” or "Egyptian magic"; those who preferred something quieter could go and see "Cosmorama" or "Animals and People Made of Wax".

What we now call prostitution, was often accompanied by the following Ads "Very cheap" or "Outstanding Discount".

And now it's time to talk Signboards. Because relatively few shopkeepers could afford glass windows 150 years ago, signboards were of paramount importance. They were all about attracting potential clients, who were especially fond of foreign unusual words and wanted to buy foreign-made goods. That is why, for example, the following signboards appeared: "Foreigner Sidor Paramonov, Shave and Haircut. Blood Letting” or "The Locomotive Is the Symbol of Progress". Some tried to write in French, often with mistakes.

The turn of the 20th century witnessed a true advertising boom. A prime example of that widespread advertising campaign was a big tea shop in Myasnitskaya street in downtown Moscow decorated "a la Chinese". Another example was a fountain of flower-scented eau-de-Cologne, built by the Brokar perfume company. Too small to bathe in it, the fountain was still much talked about. Posh dressed people or animals walking around the city is nothing new either. Dogs in frock-coats and bowlers with the addresses of Gause hat shops graced the Moscow streets many months running.

Advertising was getting more and more informative. Those ads, however verbose they may appear to our modern taste, spawned a certain style of client-producer relations. For example, instead of a simple signboard "Artemiev. Hairdressing Salon" the hairdresser writes that "Eager to meet the highest demands of the clients, he has luxuriously decorated the salon, hired first-class hair stylists, made them disinfect their instruments with sublimate and boric acid. Flower-scented eau-de-Cologne and perfume free of charge.”

Some storeowners didn't need any special advertising: their names spoke for themselves. For example, “Depre, by appointment to the Royal Court”, Foreign Wines and Havana Cigars”. Then, as usual, the competition waded in and started faking the wines. The counterfeit tasted just awful but the label was right on the money. It featured the name Depre and also some bird that looked like an eagle, the symbol of the Russian monarchy. The case was brought before the court, but the counterfeiters were acquitted because, lucky for them, one of them actually carried the name Depre and the bird on the label proved to be a crow.

During World War I advertising was very politicized, for example, even "The sweet wrappers featured the Entente soldiers, hands joined. The next advertising boom occurred some five years after the October bolshevist revolution, during the short period of the so-called "New Economic Policy". Bolsheviks briefly gave the green light to private business in attempt to pull the country out of recession. Unfortunately, after this policy was cut down, there was no more need for advertising, because there were no private enterprises left in the country. What was left of advertising, turned into slogans like "Welcome to the regional conference of girls and women!” or “Hurray to great Stalin!” However, advertising did not altogether die, it just became purely informative, this time, not as a consequence of economic stability but as a symbol of the state monopoly.

The only spot of live advertising was cinema billboards. For instance, the Indian Tomb, very popular among Soviet filmgoers, was advertised with the aid of bright billboards sitting on plywood elephants.

Soviet advertising had a specific character of its own. The fact is that it was neither business, nor advertising. But it had a flavor all its own because it never imposed anything.

Now, after the collapse of communism, a Russian consumer, used to very unsophisticated Soviet advertising, such as “Drink Tomato Juice" or "Fly the Aeroflot", has been completely overwhelmed by all this Western-style advertising. However, we should always remember that obtrusive diversity of just one of the stages advertising always goes through. After a while, it becomes less irritating and more informative and then it all happens all over again.

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