Advertising is the third oldest profession after prostitution and journalism. Pyramids of ancient Egypt sold the promise of afterlife. Alexander the Great kept founding one Alexandria after another. Roman palaces advertised state authority. The multicolor banners of kings and princes promoted the glory of their respective nations. Louis XIV proudly displayed French artifacts to make others buy or mimic the French lifestyle. In this sense, the Soviet Union was an advertiser’s paradise — provided the right values were promoted.

Every visitor to the Soviet Union could not help but feel overwhelmed by numerous posters and signs asserting Communist rule. Creativity and ingenuity varied from appropriately dull “Long live Leninism!” in Moscow to almost funny “Soviet citizens have the right to rest!” at the Soviet Black Sea resorts. Materials used covered a wide spectrum of matter from red cloth to flowers and even rocks. Most experienced gardeners planted flower beds carefully shaped to say “peace” or “USSR.” The best mountain climbers spent weeks building huge stone walls to spell “Lenin” on spectacular mountain slopes. A skeptic would say that this megalomaniacal advertisement campaign hardly helped communism, but he would be wrong. Communism lasted for 70 years — not bad for a commercial product.

Of course, in modern Russia, nobody would dare advertise communism on the streets, but other commodities are being promoted energetically and persistently. Two things seem to be selling exceptionally well: cigarettes and patriotism.

All major highways leading to Moscow carry huge signs saying, “For faith and fatherland.” An old tale in Russia, where church and state have been married for ages, but a slightly embarrassing welcome to a modern capital pretending to be a European city. Such a sign seems to have been imported from Khomeini’s Iran — but who said that Christian fundamentalism is any different from the Muslim variety? In a country with a ruined economy and loose morals it is always tempting to appeal to God. It is hard to say how many people buy the religious message itself, but judging by the number of empty churches and angry priests on TV, it appears to not be many. The only business that definitely benefits is the jewelry industry. At the beach of any international summer resort, Russians can be easily identified by their shining gold crosses. Mother Church, never known for the lack of commercialism, has also joined the jewelers’ guild: The most popular ring in Russia is the one with the inscription “Save and guard,” which is made in one of the church’s numerous workshops.

But cigarettes sell even better. Seventy percent of Russian males smoke. In Russia, the tobacco industry makes more money than the military-industrial complex. Until very recently, Marlboro was the top brand. Ads with smoking cowboys occupied the best places on Moscow streets. But the crisis in Kosovo has had at least one unintended consequence: Outraged by NATO’s bombing of Serbia, Russians are switching to domestic brands. A new generation of patriotic tobacco ads is ousting the Marlboro man. One clever sign shows a pack of Russian cigarettes landing on the Moon and knocking an American astronaut flat. The caption says “A counterstrike.” Bulgarian tobacco makers, who used to monopolize the Soviet market in the 1970s and ’80s, are also riding this new anti-Western sentiment: Their advertisement says, “An old friend is always better.” So if Marlboro wants to retaliate, it should feature Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in its ads — or dress its cowboys in Russian paratroopers uniforms. Meanwhile, Russian producers are hastily flooding the market with new patriotic brands like Peter I — named after the most venerated Russian czar.

However, the new anti-Westernism in Russia is still fragile. The ads of Hugo Boss and Coca-Cola retain a liberal share of street space, and Western Union signs depict happy Russian pensioners receiving cash from their son living overseas. There is no better treat for Russian kids than a visit to McDonald’s, whose golden arches proudly dominate many squares in the Russian capital. An attempt has been made to create a Russian fast-food chain but it still means nothing to youngsters. The same can be said for cigarettes. Russian boys, who normally start smoking at the age of 14, rarely prefer Russian cigarettes, no matter how much money is invested in their advertisement. It is also plausible that their fathers switch from Marlboro to Peter I primarily for economic rather than patriotic reasons: Russian products are cheaper.

Quality is an old problem for all Russian products. An attempt to market Russian gin has been a disaster. Tasting like cheap moonshine and ensuring rapid intoxication and fierce hangover, this product has become a chief example of abortive imitations of Western products. One may argue that the counterstrike of Russian producers will remain futile unless they adopt new quality standards. A boycott of Western products is impossible in a nation unable to produce its own worthwhile goods. Yet, one should keep in mind that traditionally Russians have never expected to be treated to good cigarettes or clothes. In a poor egalitarian society, quality is not everything and the future of Western goods on the Russian market is far from being secure.

Very soon a new wave of advertisement will reach the country, this time political: The forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections will make a good use of all imaginable tools of selling. It will be instructive to see how many candidates will pose with Russian cars, Russian drinks and Russian cigarettes.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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