Issue #14/69, July 15 - 29, 1999
To the editor:
I'd like to know which of your foreign desk editors there at the Baltimore Sun was responsible for running the July 11 article by correspondent Kathy Lally, in which the reporter claimed to divine the nature of the Russian soul on the basis of an ad for a German cigarette company.
Lally's article describes a billboard advertisment which is currently running in an number of locations all across Moscow. The ad depicts a young man on an airplane sitting next to a sexy stewardess, whose blouse is open to reveal a half-exposed set of breasts bursting out of a push-up bra. The caption under the photo reads, "Anything is possible." An unapologetic, straightforward, "sex sells" kind of ad. If you've ever owned a Maaco calendar or seen a Bud Light commercial, you're familiar with the species. Product at far left, ex-cheerleader-with-wet-t-shirt front and center. A thing, in short, as natural and comprehensible to the average American mind as baseball or tax evasion.
Yet for some reason, Lally found the ad remarkable-- and was even moved to write a whole article about it, which your foreign editors in turn for some reason published. For the purposes of this letter I'm forced to recount her description of the ad in her lead:
"The latest affirmation of the anarchy that lies deep in the Russian soul exists in a new billboard advertising a German-made cigarette called West. In the United States this ad would be considered scandalously salacious at worst and in dreadfully poor taste at best."
There are three things wrong with this paragraph. For one thing, the assertion that the ad would be considered scandalously salacious in the United States is simply ridiculous: we brought this kind of advertising not only to Russia, but to the entire world. How a stewardess in a bra is any more scandalous than, say, Mark Wahlberg grabbing his boner for Calvin Klein is beyond me.
Long before Russians even had filtered cigarettes to advertise, the West was using sex to sell products. I once saw a TV commercial for toothpaste in France whose opening sequence featured a girl tearing off her halter top and flinging it out a window. I'm sure even Kathy Lally knows toothpaste isn't used below the neck. Or that Studebaker headlights didn't need to be round for any real scientific reason. The Russians, on the other hand, never had the St. Pauli girl. For years, all they had was the Katyusha, and she only came out on May Day.
Secondly, Lally never explains why a German company's marketing campaign should be embraced as a window into the Russian soul. By her own admission later in the article, the ad is not striking any particular chord in the public; she claims Russians are "sure it will fail" to sell cigarettes. If the ad is neither embraced by Russians nor created by Russians, how does it say anything meaningful about Russians?
Thirdly, what does Lally mean when she writes about the "anarchy that lies deep within the Russian soul"? If Russians have anarchy deep within their souls, what do Americans have? Center-left democracy? A healthy system of checks and balances? A plaque of the Magna Carta?
Lally goes on to ask three construction workers what they think about the ad. They have been passing back and forth in front of it for two weeks, but their anarchic Russian souls took no notice of it. But when pressed for an opinion, they offer the following, in Lally's words:
"...Alexander Dyakonov, 37, brings up the old Russian adage to explain the message. 'If it's prohibited,' he says, 'but you want it very, very much, then of course you should do it.'
"Smoking is being banned on more and more Russian airplanes, Dyakonov points out, but that doesn't mean people have stopped doing it. Smoking, being romanced by a flight attendant, anything is possible here."
First of all, Lally mistranslates Dyakonov-- the phrase "no yesli ochen khochetsya, to mozhno" really implies that you can do something if you want, not that you should, necessarily.
Secondly, what exactly is "prohibited" here? What does Lally mean when she says, "Smoking, being romanced by a flight attendant, anything is possible here..."? Last I checked, they're possible anywhere. And thank God! True, smoking is being banned on more and more Russian flights-- but it hasn't been banned everywhere, or even on most flights really, so the ad does not explicitly support breaking the law. More importantly, what's wrong with being romanced by a flight attendant? Neither of the characters in the ad have rings on their fingers. Is the Baltimore Sun coming out against adultery? Against having sex with a Woman Who is Not Your Wife? Has it come to that?
Lally's next paragraph continues the Dyakonov quote:
'"We smoke in the toilet," he says. "We drink too much. We don't obey rules. A Russian isn't like an American. We live another way. Our behavior is different."'
Lally apparently chooses to use this quote in order to say something about Russians, but what that something is is absurd. Okay, so Russians smoke in the toilet and drink too much. Americans think Tom Clancy is literature, and 40% of us are obese. What's the point? And "A Russian isn't like an American"? Imagine trying to argue the converse!
Lally goes on:
"This renegade streak permeates life here, says Georgy Satarov, a former adviser to President Boris N. Yeltsin who runs a foundation called Information for Democracy. He adds that it can lead to all sorts of undesirable social consequences."
Lally by now is asking a former Presidential adviser to speculate on the possible social consequences posed for Russia by the "renegade streak" implied in the entire 149-million strong populace by a single ad for German cigarettes, by which she really means the "renegade streak" implied by a single billboard photograph of single pair of half-exposed breasts, which are nonetheless less exposed than the breasts of any woman on any beach anywhere in the world. If that isn't a stretch of unbelievable breadth and audacity, I don't know what is.
She goes on:
'"If I really want to, I can break the law and exceed the speed limit," says Satarov. "But I have to be willing to pay, and the policeman has to be willing to accept it."
'This is the logic that allows Russians to bribe their way through numerous official encounters, large and small. They break the rules if they really want to, and if they get caught, they pay for the privilege.
'"A bribe is a payment for permission to violate the law," Satarov says. "And this is the main difference between Russia and Western countries. Maybe at the top corruption is less than in some countries, but on the bottom it's much more serious than in the West."'
Please ask your editors how it is that Lally was ever allowed to seriously assert that there are similarities between the acceptance of a sexual invitation and the evasion of traffic laws through bribery. I can't fathom what kind of mind would uphold this kind of reasoning.
Lally later in the article tries to argue that the ad hasn't had much effect. At work here is the classic wish-fulfillment reasoning of a frustrated middle-aged woman: men love to fantasize about this picture of a sexy young woman and that's horrible, men aren't really looking at the picture and what a relief. She's wrong, of course: men love the picture. She also goes on long enough to be wrong about one other thing, Russian susceptibility to advertising:
'Besides that,' she writes, 'Dyakonov says...Russians have still not gotten over the Soviet-era perception of advertising.
'"We used to have shortages of anything that was good," he says. "They only advertised what they couldn't get rid of.
'"We depended on our friends and neighbors for everything, to tell us what was good and where to buy it. Our tradition is that if something is advertised, it isn't any good."'
Advertising sure hasn't hurt Coca-Cola in Russia. Or Pepsi. Or especially Iron-Brew, the Scottish beverage which scarcely existed in Russia before last year but is now, despite its horrible taste, number 3 in the market after a massive advertising campaign. Procter and Gamble hasn't hurt itself with advertising. And what about the investment fund MMM? A series of stylish TV ads didn't seem to prevent Russians from biting to the tune of tens of millions on that obvious pyramid scheme.
Later on, to further her argument that the ad is ineffective, Lally quotes a Russian woman:
"Lena Nikolayeva, a teacher, studies it at length. "Of course, it's about sex," she says. "It doesn't seem to say much about cigarettes."'
And what are Marlboro ads about? Lung cancer? It was all cowboys and cattle-fjording scenes last time I checked. What kind of cigarette ad does Lally expect-- a man sitting alone in an airplane seat, over a caption which reads "Smoking Makes Your Teeth Yellow"?
Lally's article is pathological, illogical, inaccurate, makes no point, and is insulting and hypocritical besides. By publishing it, the Baltimore Sun has made itself party to the dumbest and most offensive kind of xenophobic race-baiting. You've allowed your reporter to argue that an entire nation is populated by primitives simply because they've begun to embrace the same values we've had for decades. You also allow Lally to argue that Americans are law-abiding, while Russians are not. Crime and corruption may be more rampant here, but America, the world's richest country, still has the world's third-highest murder rate, behind Russia and South Africa. The American (a Harvard employee named Jonathan Hay) who was sent to Russia to administer our aid program here is currently being questioned by a grand jury in Boston about his alleged misuse of government funds-- has that story been in the Sun? Lally's gaffes may be comic, the wild meanderings of an aging woman nearing derangement, but their effect is destructive-- an insult to Russians, an impolitic and inappropriate vote of overconfidence in our own moral virtue. Your own H.L. Mencken would have been disgusted. You guys should be more careful next time.