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Advertising in the Soviet Union



Advertising in the Soviet Union is a controversial issue, which is studied less than it deserves. While social historians have neglected the issue, the idea that advertising would not exist in a socialist economy prevented historians from dealing with this subject in detail. The few existing studies are made by researchers of marketing and advertising, which either neglected the historical perspective or drew unhealthy conclusions because of negligence of historical and cultural background.

The aim of this paper is to describe advertising as an institution and a social phenomenon in the Soviet Union. Thus, explaining the nature of soviet advertising, it will show that advertising did exist in the socialist soviet economy. This paper also aims at dwelling upon the differences between western and soviet types of advertising. The question that rises at that point is the compatibility of advertising and socialist economy, and therefore the justification of having advertising, which was perceived as an essential part of capitalism, in a socialist economy, will be elucidated in a separate part. Moreover, this study will elaborate on the perceptions about the soviet advertising hold by westerners, and the soviet people. In the last section, several advertisement images from the Russian weekly magazine, Ogonek (Little Flame) will be presented to support the arguments and judgments made in the paper.


History of Advertising in Russia

In Tsarist Russia press was controlled through economic means. The tsarist government regulated the economics of publishing. Before industrialization, the main finance of publishing came from state paying for official notices. In the 1838 legislation government permitted private individuals to freely find advertisements where they wanted, but prohibited government notices from appearing in private publications.[1] In time the success of private press prompted the establishment of an advertising agency in 1878. L. and M. Mettsl’ Company was founded in St. Petersburg and soon opened its branches in other major cities. Its main catchphrase was “Advertising Is the Engine of Commerce.”[2]

The Revolution did not bring commercial advertising to a complete end. A Decree on the Introduction of a State Monopoly in Publicity, signed by Lenin and Lunacharsky on 8 November 1917, gave the authority to publish commercial advertisements only to the state.[3] This decree did not abolish the private press but rather it introduced a state monopoly of advertising. Lenin later acknowledges that this decree remained a dead letter.[4] It did not bring the power of advertisement under state control. After 1921, with the introduction of New Economic Policy (NEP), advertising was in private hands, just like all the other small business. However with industrialization and creation of the classic soviet economic system under Stalin, the proportion of advertising in press seriously decreased. Press advertising was almost entirely the type of film and theater guide and there were no specialized intermediary organizations for advertising.[5] Only in the 1960s advertising began to revive.

To have a grasp of the extent of state control and the nature of advertising in the Soviet Union, it is necessary to briefly mention the state organizations dealing with advertising. The best and the only detailed account of the issue is Philip Hansen’s description of the organization of advertising by the Soviet state in 1960s and 1970s.[6] He parts the main advertising organizations into four categories: top-level advertising coordinating council, national and republic level advertising organizations attached to the state and cooperative trade network, advertising departments of local authority trade administrations and advertising departments in service and industrial ministries, and enterprises. Although these categories seem to reflect a decentralized structure, actually all the organizations were a subject to centralized planning and state control.

One of the main advertising institutions was Vneshtorgreklama (Department of Foreign Trade Advertising). It was under the Ministry of Foreign Trade and was exclusively responsible for and had a monopoly of foreign trade advertising. It placed advertising for foreign clients in Soviet media and also arranged advertising for Soviet foreign trade organizations in western media. All advertising for imports and exports had to be done via Vneshtorgreklama.[7]

For domestic advertising there was a supreme coordinating body, Mezhduvedomstvennyi soviet po reklame (Inter-Departmental Council on Advertising, IDCA). The IDCA had four sections responsible for the advertising of manufactured goods, the advertising of food products, and rational nutrition, advertising methodology and aesthetics, and the economics and organization of advertising. This organization was intended to plan all Soviet domestic advertising and was a top-level forum in which the chief state organizations interested in advertising can be represented. There were three main institutions under the IDCA: Soyuztorgreklama (All-Union Trade Advertising Combine), Rostorgreklama (Russian Republic Trade Advertising Organization), and Ukrtorgreklama (Ukranian Republic Trade Advertising Trust). These organizations were also subordinate to the internal trade ministries.[8]

The establishment of such specialized institutions around 1960s reflects the changing socioeconomic goals in Russia. Especially after Stalin a tendency towards adapting western style institutionalization of advertising rose. Communist hostility toward advertising was seen as dissolving in the Khrushchev years. Under Brezhnev, for the first time in Soviet history an emphasis was made on consumer goods production. Besides increasing the quality of the consumer products became another goal of the Soviet industrial production.

Before 1985, advertising was not an essential need since the production and distribution were a function of the centrally planned economy. Perestroika and glasnost opened avenues for manufacturers and producers to pursue domestic and multinational markets, and utilized mass media advertising.[9] Moved by the perestroika spirit, Russians looked for increasing their knowledge on western advertising. In early 1988 an official decree was passed for the development of advertising and marketing. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry made plans to send Russian people out to study in the international centers of marketing to gain expertise in marketing and advertising.[10] Several teams were sent abroad to have seminars and also foreign experts, especially from the US, were invited to Russia to brief on advertising and marketing. This flow of western ideas on advertising resulted in an imposition of western concepts on Russian advertising system.


Theory and Nature of Soviet Advertising

To Marx any packaging, storage or transportation of goods was supplemental to the production process. But pure distribution activities arising from mere buying and selling procedures were “unproductive exploitation.” For Lenin advertising had to serve the state capitalism in the Soviet Union. In accordance with Marxian principles advertising was associated with “bourgeois decadence.”[11] Capitalist advertising was blamed to be wasteful, and served one firm. However as all the capitalist, bourgeois components were cleared away from the Soviet socialist society, advertising did not seize to exist completely, but rather gained a new conception. Although the “wild, bourgeois, exploitation and manipulative” nature of capitalist advertising was a constant propaganda tool against the western economic system, advertisement did persist and was legitimized through various explanations.[12]

The first official description of Soviet advertising came in 1957 in the recommendations of the Prague Conference of Advertising Workers of Socialist Countries.[13] The aims of the socialist trade advertising were put forward as, first to educate people’s tastes, develop their needs and thus actively form demand for goods; second, to help the consumer by informing him about the most rational ways of consumption and thirdly to help to raise the culture of trade.

          From these aims Degtiarev and Kornilov conclude that soviet advertising must have five main characteristics:[14] Firstly, ideological content. It must conform to the party and state policy in the arena of the raising of material and cultural levels of development, and also in observing the principles of socialist realism in creative work in advertising. It must orient the consumers towards the improvement of living standards, rational consumption and rational use of leisure. Second feature of the socialist advertising would be truthfulness, which gives the responsibility to the organizers of advertising to be honest and true about the nature, quality and features of the advertised items. Third characteristic is concreteness. That is, good arguments and data must be used, and it must be intelligible to the wide audience. Fourth feature is practicality. It must start from the product and the state of the market and aim at the consumer, thus must prevent waste of resources. Fifth, planned character that is it must be linked to production and trading plans.

Thus, education of people and being centrally organized emerge as the two most apparent characteristics and aims of the soviet advertising. Although this description reflects the truth to a certain degree, a more objective analysis, which includes the western perspective of advertising, may provide a better understanding of the nature of the soviet advertising.

One feature that is not clearly stated in the above descriptions is the propaganda. A major aspect of the soviet advertising was dealing with political propaganda and public service announcements. Advertising was intended to emphasize the success of the Soviet state, strength of the Party, developments in industry, rise in production and new government policies. For instance much of the Russian outdoor advertising consisted of announcements of entertainment and cultural events or political propaganda.[15]

Creation of demand, which is stated as an aim of socialist advertising, may be misleading if not clarified. First of all there is no consistency among the soviet authors as to the existence and explanation of demand-creation. Some Russian writers justify the existence of advertising by the absence of demand-creation in the soviet advertising. Principal defense for having commercial advertising in the soviet socialist economy related primarily to informing the consumer of purchase alternatives, not creating demand. On the other hand, officially, the role of advertising as an educator of public taste was supported with the acknowledgement of its role to develop demand.[16] Even if one would accept the existence of the idea of developing demand, its nature is essentially different from the western perception of increasing demand. The creation of demand in the soviet type would be for products which are newly invented, or which are excessive in the stocks. Besides the central planning of advertising distinguishes the creation of demand in the soviet economy from the western one.

Another feature of the soviet advertising, which the Soviet writers do not mention, is that socialist advertising is not supposed to be competitive. Advertising, rather, was supposed to fulfill the overall economic plan by redirecting demand. Advertising focused on individual activity that benefited society and the spirit of socialism. Socialist advertising symbolized product consumption as a means of maintaining economic stability and a harmonious society. Therefore brand advertising would not gain influence until very recently. Advertising provided information for goods and services, rather than brands. “Advertising was not regarded as a persuasive tool to move merchandise or to accept installment selling as a means to alleviate to the effect of planning errors or to make retailing establishments more profitable.”[17]


Perceptions of Advertising

In the western historiography, there are various contradictory approaches to the Soviet advertising. While some historians emphasize the scarcity, even absence of advertising in the Soviet Union[18], others emphasize that though its nature was slightly different than western advertising, Russians did have advertising under socialist economy. Some, like Ludmilla Wells, unconvincingly claims that western and soviet understandings of advertising were the same.[19] While some historians try to explain the scarcity of advertising by lack of consumer commodities and of a good understanding of advertising on the Party level[20], others claimed as early as 1970s that advertising was increasingly rising in Russia and soon it should be expected that Soviet advertising would reach to the level of western.[21] These controversies stem from a lack of understanding of Soviet advertising and also lack of a clear theoretization of advertising on the Soviet side.

A problem of perception revealed when western firms rushed into the Soviet Union after perestroika. While pumping their products in, they acted with sole business strategies, not considering cultural differences. They also endeavored to implement the western advertising strategies by just translating western commercials into Russian. Their advertising objective was to establish brand names. However, Soviet consumers were not accustomed to western-style advertising. Foreign firms advertised to make their brand names known, but Russians perceived it as an invasion of their personal lives. They advertised goods that are unavailable or unaffordable, so they simply received reaction from the Russian consumer, for whom an advertised object was found in abundance in the prevailing system.

Perception of advertising by the consumers is explained perfectly in a quote from Igor Volkov, professor of marketing in Moscow State University:

“Before advertising was looked at as a form of propaganda to move merchandise that was unpopular…. I remember seeing huge banners on the tall buildings inviting people to “Drink Cocoa”, or “Eat Plum Jam” or “Fly Aeroflot”. This was all rather ironical because these products that were advertised were plentiful. It was looked at as a necessary element of external human surroundings (natural environment). And it was ignored.”[22]


Thus people were not used to be attracted by advertisements, and for some the new “wild” nature of western advertising was simply transgressive. Another effect of the soviet understanding of advertising, which the above quote refers, is the unpopularity of the advertised items. When a product was advertised, it was found in the stores in abundance. The advertised products were “surplus or unsalable items that the government hoped to dump.”[23] Therefore for consumer, if a product was advertised, it sometimes meant that nobody bought them, and it was clue not to buy that item.

With the introduction of western style advertising into the Russian market after perestroika, these perceptions have begun to change, but this time, the advertised products were scarce, and although advertisement was made nation-wide, the advertised product would be found only in Moscow. When it is found, it would be unaffordable, and thus frustrating for the consumer.

An official from Reklama advertising magazine stated, “It is very annoying when people see a luxurious car and the voice over says, “This car is for you.” All the provinces sent us letters calling this advertising ‘mocking’. This kind of advertising creates a bad image of businessmen.”[24] Thus, Russian consumers have increasingly viewed advertising as touting products at unaffordable prices, with insufficient supply levels and inadequate distribution to meet their needs.

          A shift in the western firms’ perception of advertising in post-perestroika Russia occurred when they realized the fact that advertising for the wide consumer public was not efficient due to the above mentioned transition problems. Corporate and brand image advertising touted goods and services that were accessible only to businesses that had hard currency or to individuals who could afford the high prices for imported technologies. So, “domestic and foreign firms quickly refocused their advertising messages toward business-to-business communication.”[25] A recent study shows that bulk of the advertisements are business to business in nature, rather than directly targeting the average consumer. According to the research, more than three-quarters of the TV advertisements were targeted solely toward businessmen.[26]


Advertisement in Russian Magazine: Ogonek

          An examination of the advertisements in Ogonek (Little Flame) will serve our purpose of understanding the soviet advertisement. The first point to remember is that in general consumer advertisements in magazines are rare. Even magazines with more than 20 million circulations do not carry advertisement messages regularly. Only from 1991 on some magazines have begun accepting advertisements.

Under the Soviet regime, the majority of consumer magazines carried no advertising. Those that do tended to carry only a few, generally only one, advertisements per publication. A recent research confirms that the same tendency still persists in the post-Soviet era.[27] Interesting enough general consumer magazines, in spite of rapid liberalization in economics in the last 15 years, continue to carry very few, sometimes even none, advertisements. Contrary to what one would expect, it is hard to find advertisements in most magazines.

           Ogonek for the most part held advertisements on the back cover of each issue. In some years, the percentage of advertisement dropped sharply. In certain periods of time here was only one advertisement in four issues. However the general trend until perestroika was to have one ad on the back cover in each issue.

          A typical example of advertisements from 1950s is a cigarette ad. This is a very simple advertisement of cigarette from 10 December 1950, in which most features of soviet advertising can be traced. There is no brand name, no persuasive phrases, no sophisticated illustrations, and no sign of competition. It would be better to name this image as an announcement by Department of Tobacco, which is the sole distributor of the product, to inform about a new product or to decrease tobacco stocks.

Ministry of Food Industry

Tobacco Department



The big choice




In company stores, pavilions, kiosks of Tobacco Trade Union and also of Ministry of Commerce


Informative aspect reveals itself in the bottom, where it lists the stores that cigarette can be bought. Thus there is neither a scarcity of cigarette, nor a trouble of locating it. The equivalent of the above ad today would be the following:

20 New Reasons to Be Proud of!










Ministry of Health is warning:

Smoking is dangerous for your health.


In this ad from 10 April 1999, the brand name is more visible and the visualization is better used to attract attention of the consumer. Although the slogan has a persuasive power, informative nature of advertising can still be observed in the two columns below the picture, in which it gives detailed information about the brand and its quality. The uncompetitive nature can still be noticed. Besides the idea of announcing a new product may be followed in the main slogan. The emphasis on “New” tells the consumer that this item is a new product, which should be tried. However there is no emphasis of superiority of the brand over others, or persuasive or an aggressive catcphrase. The role of the state is declined to the official warning. Availability is another issue, about which there is no sign in this ad, when compared with the previous.

In the same way, a comparison of two bank ads, one from 1950 and the other from January 2001 shows similar tendencies.


Labor Savings to Savings Bank for Safekeeping







Keep your Money

In Savings Bank!



The Savings Bank had the banking monopoly, so it is hard to compare this ad, from 03 September 1950, with the bank ads in the capitalist economies today. This advertisement is again very simple, unsophisticated, without any incentives, and enthusiasm or attraction to the consumer. It just aims education of the people.



MDM Bank

Moscow Business World




Full cycle brokery and investment banking system


A typical advertisement of January 2001 completely lacked in illustrations or photography. The only visual device would be the bank’s logo in the upper left hand corner of the ad. Print ads are seldom illustrated and use of color is even less common. The messages are very restrained from a copy standpoint. It is typical business-to-business type advertising, with a very formal kind of information about the services of the bank. Ostund reports that in the early 1970s “most domestic advertising is dull and lifeless. Advertising copy cannot knock rival products… nor can superiority be asserted.” Hanson also stated in 1974 that the soviet advertising, different from the US, is mostly inoffensive and unmemorable.” Thus it is noticeable and notable how the same tendencies and habits still persist even today. Overall, magazine ads were and still are unsophisticated and far from the level of ads in the capitalist press.



Concluding Remarks

          Advertising did exist in the Soviet Union. Although capitalism was criticized for its wild and wasteful advertising, soviet advertising in time institutionalized and became a separate branch of soviet economy. Its seeming contradiction with the socialist theory was legitimized by distinguishing it from the western capitalist type of advertising with its several features like education of people and by making advertising a part of the centrally planned economy. However, together with theoretical distinctions, the nature of advertising was also extensively different from the western type. The dull copy of the advertisement massage, avoiding persuasiveness and persistently remaining informative and propagandist, made advertising a completely unimportant aspect of the soviet economy. Moreover, instead of promoting brand names in a competitive atmosphere, just announcing the abundant products, like “Drink tomato juice!”, had a contrary effect on the ordinary Russian people. The perestroika and post-Soviet periods witnessed an influx of western perspectives of advertising. However, this paper shows that advertising in the Russian magazines have not yet reflected westernization in advertising as it would be expected. Although some commercial articles have begun to be published, it is possible to find issues in year 2001 with no advertisement. This shows, among other things like the unsafe legal and economic conditions, that although there has been a change in the perception of advertising among the managers and staff of Russian magazines, a competitive economy has not developed enough in Russia.

As Mettsl’ promoted: “Advertising is the engine of commerce.”










Primary sources

Ogonek (Little Flame)


O Partiinoi i Sovetskoi Pechati, Radioveshchanii i Televidenii (On Party and Soviet Press, Broadcasing and Television). Moskva: Mysl, 1972.


Lenin, V. I. “Seventh Moscow Gubernia Conference of the Russian Communist Party.” Lenin Collection, <http://www.marx2mao.org/Lenin/SMC21.html>, visited on 10 December 2001.




Secondary Sources


Degtiarev, Iu. and  L. Kornilov. Torgovaia Reklama: Ekonomika, Iskustvo (Trade Advertising: Economics, Art). Moskva: Ekonomika, 1969.


Felker, Jere. Soviet Economic Controversies. England: M.I.T. Press, 1967.


Feofanov, O. A. SShA: Reklama I Obshchestvo. Moskva: Mysl, 1974.


Hanson, Philip. Advertising and Socialism. London: McMillan Press, 1974.


Jacobs, Everett. “New Developments in Soviet Advertising and Marketing Theory.” International Journal of Advertising 5 (1986): 243-246.


Jacobson, David. “Trapping the Soviet Market.” Business Marketing (May 1991): 26-28.


McReynolds, Louise. The News Under Russia’s Old Regime. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.


Mueller, Barbara. “From the Cold War to a Hot Marketplace: The Role of Advertising in the Commonwealth of Independent States.” The Proceedings of the 1993 Conference of the American Academy of Advertising. Columbia: U. Missouri-Columbia, 1993.


Ostlund, Lyman. “Russian Advertising: A New Concept.” Journal of Advertising Research 13 (1973): 11-19.


Szelapki, Leslie. “Advertising in the Soviet Bloc.” Journal of Advertising Research 14 (1974): 13-17.


Wells, Ludmilla. “Western Concepts, Russian Perspectives: Meaning of Advertising in the Former Soviet Union.” Journal of Advertising 23 (1994): 83-95.


Wells, Ludmilla. “A New World Order: The Role of Advertising in Russia and the NIS.” International Journal of Advertising 16 (1997): 104-117.



[1] Louise McReynolds, The News Under Russia’s Old Regime Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 25.

[2] Ibid. p. 27. Also see, Iu. Degtiarev and  L. Kornilov, Torgovaia Reklama: Ekonomika, Iskustvo (Trade Advertising: Economics, Art), Moskva: Ekonomika, 1969, p. 12.

[3] O Partiinoi I Sovetskoi Pechati, Radioveshchanii I Televidenii (On Party and Soviet Press, Broadcasing and Television), Moskva: Mysl, 1972, p. 58-59.

[4] V. I. Lenin, “Seventh Moscow Gubernia Conference of the Russian Communist Party,” Lenin Collection, <http://www.marx2mao.org/Lenin/SMC21.html>, visited on 10 December 2001,

 p. 91.

[5] Philip Hanson, Advertising and Socialism, London: McMillan Press, 1974, p. 22.

[6] Ibid. pp. 21-36.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ludmilla Wells, “A New World Order: The Role of Advertising in Russia and the NIS,” International Journal of Advertising, 16, 1997, pp. 107-108.

[10] Barbara Mueller, “From the Cold War to a Hot Marketplace: The Role of Advertising in the Commonwealth of Independent States,” The Proceedings of the 1993 Conference of the American Academy of Advertising, Columbia: U. Missouri-Columbia, 1993, p. 256.

[11] Leslie Szelapki, “Advertising in the Soviet Bloc,” Journal of Advertising Research, 14, 3, 1974, pp. 13-17.

[12] O. A. Feofanov, SShA: Reklama I Obshchestvo, Moskva: Mysl, 1974, pp. 19-50.

[13] Degtiarev, p. 15.

[14] Ibid. 16-17.

[15] Lyman Ostlund, “Russian Advertising: A New Concept,” Journal of Advertising Research, 13, 1, 1973, p. 13.

[16] Ibid. p. 12.

[17] Jere Felker, Soviet Economic Controversies, England: M.I.T. Press, 1967, p. 154.

[18] Mueller, pp. 248-263. Also see, Everett Jacobs, “New Developments in Soviet Advertising and Marketing Theory,” International Journal of Advertising, 5, 3, 1986, pp. 243-246.

[19] Wells, “A New World Order: The Role of Advertising in Russia and the NIS,” p. 115.

[20] Ibid. p. 149.

[21] Ibid, p. 155, Ostlund, p. 18.

[22] Ludmilla Wels, “Western Concepts, Russian Perspectives: Meaning of Advertising in the Former Soviet Union,” Journal of Advertising, 23, 1, 1994, p. 89.

[23] David Jacobson, “Trapping the Soviet Market,” Business Marketing¸ May 1991, pp. 26-28.

[24] Wells, “A New World Order: The Role of Advertising in Russia and the NIS,” p. 111.

[25] Wells, “Western Concepts, Russian Perspectives: Meaning of Advertising in the Former Soviet Union,” p. 91.

[26] Mueller, p. 257.

[27] Mueller, p. 258.