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Analysis & Opinion
20.05.09 Does The Country Need Your Records?
By Albina Kovalyova

Russia, like many Western countries, has public awareness advertising campaigns aimed at the wholesome improvement of society. Dating back to the Soviet times, these “social ads,” as they are called in Russia, have included themes from army conscription to promoting big families. These campaigns continue to this day, but the modern ads are a long way from the iconic, stylized and powerful Soviet posters. The issues that adverts now deal with are not the most poignant and humanitarian, but rather ones that could be of benefit to the country and therefore to its rulers.

The Moscow Metro is plastered with images of a woman who holds three identical babies on her lap. The woman looks like an ordinary mom, and the babies wear different clothes that make them look like they are actually different persons, although there is a disturbing impression of them having been cloned on Photoshop. The caption on the poster says “the country needs your records,” and below that, in smaller print, “every minute three children are born.”
This ambiguous advertisement sends mixed messages. On the one hand it seems to be urging the country’s residents to have many children. Yet its depiction of solitary motherhood looks more tiring than appealing, and the by-line about how many children are born each minute is confusing. Is that a lot or a little, a good thing or a problem? Perhaps it would have been better to state that the Russian population is falling by some 750,000 to 800,000 each year. This is a real, serious problem facing Russia, and this fact could possibly get the citizens thinking about addressing the issue.

And here lies the crux of the matter. Advertisements addressing serious problems do not seem to make their way onto Russian billboards or television screens. Other countries have produced powerful, sometimes brutally truthful advertisements tackling issues such as drunk driving, domestic violence, pedophilia and global warming, not to mention AIDS. Although these are all issues that affect Russia (in 2007, UNICEF estimated that nearly a million Russians were living with AIDS, and the country has one of the fastest growing rates of HIV infection in the world), the kind of hard-hitting advertisements that became ubiquitous in the West after the HIV epidemic hit in the 1980s are conspicuously absent.

Why? Olimp, the advertising company responsible for much of the public awareness campaigns on the Moscow metro, says it wants to make the Russian capital more pleasant, but it seems more likely that the idea of shocking people into confronting uncomfortable truths simply never crossed its executives’ minds. Asked why their ads did not confront such serious social ills as rape, domestic violence, pedophilia and AIDS, they were rather lost for words. “We didn’t really know how to answer this. It’s just that we always strove for a positive image, so that people would be happy,” said the company’s press secretary, Natalia Ignatyevna. The Web site of the company claims that the people who are most likely to pay attention to adverts in the metro are women aged sixteen to sixty-five, people with a higher education, and people with middle to high incomes.

But what influence will such adverts as “the country needs your records” (which in Russian does not carry the ominous connotation of a database state that it does in English, but is still head-scratching obtuse) or a picture of a man with a bottle top growing out of his head with a slogan that reads “a lot of wine equals little brains” really have on the Russian public? Will it make people stop drinking and start giving birth to lots of kids?

“Unfortunately we cannot answer your questions as we do not comment on the social motivations of our company. We believe that these activities do not necessarily need to be advertised,” the agency’s representatives said. It is unclear why the agency does not have anything to say about the choices for their adverts, but sociologist Olga Krishtanovskaya believes that adverts such as the one of the woman do have a role in promoting family values. “These values promote health and vitality which is reflected in a big family,” she said.

The government is partially responsible for the kind of advertisements that get made. In an interview to the Moscow-based Bolshoi Gorod magazine, Vladimir Makarov, the official representative of the Moscow Committee for Advertising, Information and Design, commented on various Western public awareness advertisements. He was shown a poster of a little boy crawling around on the carpet of what is presumably his own home. In the dark, with the help of fluorescent paint, a man sitting on a chair would be revealed, positioning the child’s head between his legs. The following words accompanied this shocking image: “Pedophilia. You may not see it, but it could be happening,” and in smaller print: “70 percent of child abuse cases take place in their own home,” followed by a telephone number inviting people to report child molesters. Makarov admitted that this poster was powerful, but said that he would not like to see such an ad on Moscow streets for fear that “it might provoke odd people by showing them ways of committing pedophilia.”

Krishtanovskaya was also critical of that poster, but only because it fails to address a social need. Instead of simply exposing the problem, she believes that it should be tackled more directly. “Pedophiles should be the ones who are frightened by the possibility of being found out and punished, not simply by commercials which show that these things happen,” she said. The implication of punishment should be made clear, she added, as some people may misunderstand the intention of the poster and see it as a provocation. However, it seems that the critics of the ad are missing the point. What the poster calls for is reporting the pedophiles, not becoming one.

What, then, does the social awareness advertising in Russia say about the public? This year the Russian Television refused to air an advertisement for the Federal Authority for Road Traffic Safety which had been approved by the Interior Ministry and the film industry. The advert showed a car crash where the only survivor was the one who had the seatbelt on. The television channels said that the advert was too cruel. But there is no shortage of violence and cruelty on Russia’s television screens, and fatal car accidents in the country are soaring, causing around 30,000 deaths last year, according to Russia’s traffic police.

Does realism scare? From the reaction of Makarov and the advertising company Olimp it seems that the aim is not to confront people with serious problems but to provide softer images that could help promote the idea of prosperity. Krishtanovskaya, however, says that it is important to create awareness of the dangers involved in our activities. “It is better that people are not pointlessly frightened by the horror films and thrillers they see, but by the consequences of their actions like driving and taking drugs,” she said. An element of shock may be a good thing if it has a clear message.

Although the awkward advertisement about road traffic safety was not allowed, Russian television audiences have recently been introduced to a social awareness ad of another kind. Borrowing from the U.S. “Got Milk?” commercials, Russia now has ads promoting milk. Backed by the Russian government, this is more like a conventional product advertisement than a public awareness campaign.

The aim, the creators say, is to replace junk-food convenience products like the Snickers chocolate bar with milk. This will no doubt boost sales of Russian-produced milk, which will carry an advertisement linked to the television commercial on its cartons. But will it make society better or more morally upright?

Although pubic awareness campaigns do exist, they, for the most part, fail to achieve their goals. Their themes and representations on Russia’s streets, subways, and television screens do not present the public with any of the very crucial problems the country is facing. And even those that do attempt to tackle serious issues, like the “records” advert that deals with the demographic crisis, do so ambiguously. Perhaps it is not in the authorities’ interest to promote self-awareness since that would raise the uncomfortable question of why these problems exist in the first place.
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