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BOMBAY-Unilever, used to competing with multinational rivals around the world, is now the only one producing advertising locally in Myanmar.

The Asian nation's military dictatorship licensed Unilever two years ago to market products there. To be able to market and advertise in Myanmar, a foreign company must be a licensed manufacturer and adhere to tough restrictions.

After the junta took charge 30 years ago in what was then called Burma, smugglers became the bearers of Unilever's and other Western goods. Such goods are typically brought through the porous border running along Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand.

"It's a totally protected market, and [yet] you have a parallel free market [dealing in] predominantly Thai brands," said Ashish Bhasin, Lintas India account group head based here, who's working with Unilever on the $500,000 assignment.

"It's the first time an ad agency has locally produced, completed and put on the air TV and radio commercials" in Myanmar, Mr. Bhasin said.

In 1992, the same year Unilever was licensed to market in Myanmar, government-run Myanmar Television first allowed more than just a simple product shot and voice-over in commercials.

A burgeoning middle class with growing purchasing power, long exposed to the smuggled products of the West, has made foreign brands among the country's best sellers.

Also part of that reality, however, is that as much as 35% of the country's 43.7 million people are mired in poverty, according to United Nations figures. Average per capita income is only $650 annually.

Unilever, nevertheless, believes personal-care products will sell because they are reasonably priced, Mr. Bhasin said.

Ad themes for Unilever brands are similar to those used in other parts of the world, but the images are local. For Lux soap and Sunsilk shampoo TV spots, popular and non-controversial film actresses May Tha Nu and Leh Leh appear as spokeswomen.

Wheel detergent bar uses another film actress, and the commercials for Close-Up toothpaste and Dimension shampoo are adaptations from Vietnamese ads, also produced by Lintas India.

Even though Unilever's budget is fairly hefty for the country, it's unclear how many people see the ads. Some figures indicate that for every 1,000 people, there are only five newspaper copies and two TV sets. Just eight people out of 100 own a radio.

Undaunted, Lintas India has so far created 16 TV spots for Unilever in the past two years. There have been other firsts: Trains passing through the capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) were emblazoned with ads of Unilever products, and buses will be next.

Unilever's budget goes far because of low media rates. A 30-second TV spot costs $250 and a radio :60 about $80. Print wasn't considered because of the poor production values of the single state-owned, propaganda-filled paper, New Light of Myanmar.

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