Maybe the Russians Are Right: Advertising Can Be a Bad Thing

Has Marketing Helped Create a Culture of Consumer Debt?

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Mark Tutssel, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide and jury president of the Red Apple ad festival in Moscow, put it bluntly: The advertising he and his fellow panelists judged was "good, bordering on very good, but not exceptional."

What can you expect from countries that until only a few decades ago were controlled by a form of government built on empty promises? People learned to discount all that puffery, and they are equally adept at discounting the same kinds of excesses in Russian advertising.

During my recent visit to Moscow, I was told time and again that Russian advertisers don't take many chances, and hence the ads appear quite similar.
The Red Apple ad festival in Moscow was a lesson in the value of skepticism.
The Red Apple ad festival in Moscow was a lesson in the value of skepticism.
As Carolyn Carter, president-CEO of Grey Group Europe, Middle East and Africa, put it, "We are making significant investments in talent development, especially in creative, because agencies need not only the expertise to create but the confidence and credibility to lead clients in choosing better work.

"The maturing of marketing communications is required as Russia evolves beyond the polarization of superconsumers and nonconsumers to more-sophisticated consumers, more-democratized brands and more-dispersed geography," Ms. Carter told the Worldwide Advertising Forum. Right now, there's not much brand action beyond Russia's big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But because advertising in Russia is a relatively new phenomenon, and most consumers regard it with the same disbelief they did communism, there is much more discussion about its social and ethical implications.

I find that very refreshing, and I submit we should emulate the Russians in this regard. There's too much advertising that borders on misleading and even unethical, and as my old boss Stan Cohen says, these excesses could lead to the coming of a new Ralph Nader.

Is the housing meltdown baked into our consumer society? John Kenneth Galbraith, in his other famous book, "The Affluent Society," wrote: "One danger in the way wants are now created lies in the related process of debt creation. Consumer demand thus comes to depend more and more on the ability and willingness of consumers to incur debt.

"An increase in consumer debt is all but implicit in the process by which wants are now synthesized. Advertising and emulation, the two independent sources of desire, work across the society. ...With those who lack the current means, it is a brief and obvious step from stimulating their desire by advertising to making it effective in the market with a loan.

"In a society where virtuosity in persuasion must keep pace with virtuosity in production, one is tempted to wonder whether the first can forever keep ahead of the second," Mr. Galbraith pondered.

While his discussion of this moral dilemma might seem almost quaint today, he nevertheless raises precisely the question we should at least be considering: Does keeping our "economic locomotive" (as the mayor of Moscow put it) hurtling down the tracks require consumers to acquire stuff -- including houses -- beyond their means? And shouldn't there be, somewhere in our society, a countervailing voice that preaches caution and even prudence?

These questions don't even get debated anymore. And anyway, we shouldn't be so smug about the superiority of our advertising. In last week's Ad Age, I read that beer companies are cutting back on traditional ads for promotional and sponsorship activities; that market research contradicts itself; and that a headache remedy relies on annoying TV commercials reminiscent of the Rosser Reeves school of advertising.

Maybe Russia's got a long way to go before it reaches the "sophistication" of our market, but it's also smart to debate each step along the way.
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