The Soviet Plan to Make Real Ads for Fake Products

Television ads serve a very clear purpose: the help makers of stuff sell more of that stuff. Maybe the goal is to tell you that the product is now available, brand new, or on sale. Or maybe the ads are trying to build brand affinity for the company or the product. But either way, the idea is the same: the advertisers spend money to entice you, the consumer, to spend your money on their product. And, in general, it works. In the United States alone, brands spent more than $60 billion on television ads in 2022

But for your ad to work, the product needs to actually exist. That’s obvious, though. Right?

Well, not in Soviet Russia.

The Soviet Union had a planned economy, with many high-level decisions made centrally by the government or its designees. What was manufactured and to what amounts, what farms grew and produced and where their products went, etc. — all of these decisions were guided by Soviet leadership. Advertising wasn’t all that important — at least not insofar as consumers’ choices were concerned, in large part because consumers didn’t have a ton of choice. In bad times, there were massive shortages, and you were lucky to get much of anything, and in good times, you received whatever was allotted to you as deemed appropriate by the planning committee. But in the mid-1960s, public demand for the benefits of a less-controlled environment grew throughout Eastern Europe and even in the Soviet Union itself. So to help show, falsely, that life behind the Iron Curtain was as prosperous outside it, the Soviet leadership insisted that all of its businesses invest in a brand campaign.

Specifically, the government mandated that all businesses allocate one percent of their budgets to television advertising, even though they had no need for such ads. And, given the lack of honest demand for those ads, the government had to find someone to supply the creative. The solution: Eesti Reklaamfilm (ERF), literally “Estonian commercial film,” a repurposed propaganda house that was shifted to make commercials. The company’s mandate, though, wasn’t to promote specific products; it was to promote the wonderful, abundant life that Soviet administrators wanted their citizens to believe was real. ERF, therefore, wasn’t limited to making ads for real products. They were, instead, expected to make Soviet life look fantastic.

The ads, therefore, often didn’t promote anything that was available or, for that matter, even real. As Russia Beyond explains, “the creatives at ERF produced whatever ads they wanted, and when the party bosses reviewed the films, everyone pretended everything was just fine.” And there was a lot of these ads, one crazier than the next. According to the Australian magazine Smith Journal, “ERF made over 6000 commercials for all manner of goods – both real and fictitious. But whether they were advertising a fanciful toilet seat or a plain old stick of margarine, they did have one thing in common: they more closely resembled a Lynchian fever dream than anything Sterling Cooper might have produced.” Take, for example, this advertisement for minced chicken (embedded below). The ad just repeats the words “chicken, chicken, chicken minced meat” over and over while cycling through images of minced chicken, someone making something from it, young women eating whatever the concoction is, and, for some reason, a live chicken.

Would that make you want to buy minced chicken? Maybe. But it didn’t matter, because at no point was that product available to Soviet consumers. But as Russia Beyond continues, that didn’t matter: “Basically, nobody cared. After all, if the products were real, they would sell anyway in a country where shortages were widespread. If the ads were pitching ghost products, it again didn’t matter, as there was nothing to sell.” All that mattered was that TV viewers believed that such happy lives could be achieved under Soviet rule.

The ads probably worked, too — and not because Soviet viewers were fooled. Almost everyone knew that these ads were lies, but they didn’t care. As We Are the Mighty notes, “from the outside looking in, it might seem like this would annoy the Soviet population, but in reality, the opposite occurred. Soviet citizens began to enjoy the entertainment value of the commercials.”  You couldn’t buy the minced chicken, but seeing what new fake product ERF came up with became must-see TV.

Bonus fact: Early Soviet TVs were popular but expensive, and families that wanted one usually had to fork over a lot of money to get one — often, much more than a month’s discretionary pay. As a result, many families opted for small TV sets, which made it difficult for everyone to gather around to watch a show together. The solution? As Amusing Planet shows, many of these small, early TVs were outfitted with a big magnifying lens in front of the screen — a cheaper way to get a larger image. 

From the Archives: A Mushroom Grows in Moscow: What happens when state-run TV makes a joke at the expense of Vladimir Lenin? People believe the joke.