NOTORIOUS INVESTMENT FUND ADS FLOOD RUSSIA

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MOSCOW-The multimillion-dollar saturation TV campaign for a fund that ended up parting millions of Russians from their hard-earned rubles has turned out to be unsinkable.

The MMM fund sold shares to the Russian public until it collapsed and was banned from state TV in July. But starting late last month, MMM has again taken to the air with ads cre-ated in-house, after finding takers in cash-strapped private stations. Among those that said they couldn't afford to turn away a paying client: Independent NTV, which broadcasts in European Russia, and MTK, a partially private Moscow TV station.

The MMM ads, which first began in February 1993, were initially considered the most effective campaign in Russia since the collapse of communism. But MMM turned from a household word into a four-letter word on Russian tongues this summer when the company-set share price dropped from about $60 to less that $1 in a single day, leaving millions of shareholders clutching suddenly worthless pink and green scraps of paper (AA, Aug. 29).

Acting on a decree that President Boris Yeltsin issued earlier in the year, the government and its ad control arm, the Anti-Monopoly Committee, cracked down on false advertising in investment funds. But that did little good because while many funds indeed turned out to be scams, few ads made concrete promises.

When the crackdown failed-and the imprisonment of MMM head Sergei Mavrodi on tax evasion charges failed to fully shut the fund down-the government simply ordered state-run TV to stop running MMM ads.

The ads' reappearance is one more slap in the face given to the government by MMM. The first came when Mr. Mavrodi was released from jail and voted into Russia's Parliament this fall.

The return of MMM's advertising undermines Russia's pains to remove the three letters that have come to symbolize the unpleasant side effects of economic reform. The ads further point up the state's inability to exercise Soviet-style control over con artists, considered society's most dangerous elements even as their ventures compete with new government-issue securities.

MMM officials refused to talk about the campaign, which reintroduces the characters now as familiar to Russian viewers as soap opera stars. The spots don't mention MMM by name, apparently to avoid challenges.

"It's understood" what is being advertised, said Anti-Monopoly Committee Chair Natalya Fonareva.

Because the campaign appears not to violate Russian law, the government hasn't acted against it. The spots show the well-known folks in slice-of-life situations.

The final seconds make it clear the ad is meant as a jab at its enemies in government. The close shows MMM's three-butterfly symbol against a background jingle that sounds like a cross between a schoolyard taunt and the diabolical laugh of an invincible cartoon villain.

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