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Russian Politics With a Twist, American-Style : Advertising: Small Malibu agency created five television spots for Boris Yeltsin's recent referendum campaign.

May 01, 1993|BRUCE HOROVITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin realized that he needed Western-style advertising to help get his party's referendum approved by Russian voters, he didn't turn to Madison Avenue.

He turned to Malibu.

Malibu? Yes, Malibu, home to Johnny Carson, Cher and Alice's Restaurant. Now Malibu can also claim to be home to the tiny political ad agency that just might have played some small role in salvaging--at least temporarily--democratic-style reforms in Russia.

Goddard Claussen/First Tuesday created five TV spots supporting Yeltsin and the reforms. The ads juxtapose stark images of the old Soviet government with hopeful images of smiling children representing the new Russia. The ads, which were produced by the Hollywood production company GRFX/Novocom, ran on Russian television just one week before the April 25 referendum.

"We knew the way to win this election was to run the Parliament against the children," said Ben Goddard, president of First Tuesday. "I've worked on presidential campaigns before, but I never worked on a campaign where the stakes were: Will democracy exist in this country?"

The advertisements are among the first professionally produced Western-style spots to be broadcast nationally in a Russian political contest. They certainly won't be the last. No one is claiming that the ads vastly changed the outcome of the referendum that kept Yeltsin in power and Russia on the road to democratic reforms. But after the vote, several of Yeltsin's foes gave backhanded compliments to the ads by decrying them as misleading--a criticism commonly leveled at successful American political spots.

"There's little doubt that in the future, Western advertising professionals will get more involved in the Russian political process," said Alexander Gelman, a Russian playwright who is a leader in Russia's new democratic movement. "But the opposition will try to portray this as something very negative--as if the U.S. Army were occupying Russia."

Less than three weeks before the referendum, Goddard received an urgent call from an aide to Gennady E. Burbulis, who was chief strategist for Yeltsin's 1990 election campaign.

Goddard had met Burbulis in 1992, not long after his firm--envisioning an opportunity to get involved on the ground floor of the democratization of Russia--opened a branch office in St. Petersburg. Goddard, whose firm has created political ads for Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and Bruce Babbitt, has been involved in political consulting for more than two decades.

Before jumping on a jet to Moscow, Goddard coaxed longtime friend John A. Ridgway to come along. Ridgway's TV graphics and production firm, GRFX, designs graphics for "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" and "Entertainment Tonight."

"It was the project of a lifetime," said Ridgway, who temporarily put all of his firm's other business on hold to work on the referendum ads. "When you get a chance to work on something like this, you just make time for it."

The two men arrived in Russia on Easter weekend. Yeltsin was in Asia, but the American ad consultants met with top Yeltsin aides and members of the Center for Russian Democratic Reform to plan strategy.

Together, Goddard and Ridgway researched, created and produced the spots in one frantic week.

Psychologists and professors from several Russian universities aided the men. They spent about 12 hours each day poring over research. They were told that 98% of the Russian homes have TV sets--so they knew that television was the best way to quickly reach a lot of people.

Each evening, Goddard and Ridgway sketched out the proposed ads on cocktail napkins in their hotel lounge.

And every day, they faxed their ideas back to their agencies in Malibu and Hollywood so that artists could start working on them. Because there was little time to film live action for the ads, much of the film footage came from CNN and other news sources.

The men returned to America, where they quickly weaved the spots together. They hired a Russian translator for the voice-overs, and a composer to create original music for the ads.

Within four days of returning, they sent the completed ads back to Russia via satellite feed. The spots began to air on three Russian TV networks exactly one week before the referendum.

The ads are as American as, well, MTV. In fact, one ad aimed at garnering the youth vote features a video montage of blue jeans-clad Russian youth frolicking at a rock concert. The ad is littered with logos of Western products such as Pepsi and Levi's.

But there are frightening contrasts to these images in the ad: grainy scenes of Parliament members bickering and of Soviet soldiers marching in lock step. "For our music. For our lifestyle. For our future," an off-screen narrator says. "They can never take us back if we take time to vote."

The four other ads all featured colorful shots of cheery-faced Russian children--then contrast these happy scenes to dreary black-and-white images of the KGB and the Russian Parliament. Yeltsin himself is virtually excluded from the ads--except for one spot that briefly shows him at a political rally waving the Russian flag.

For all their efforts, Goddard and Ridgway will not be paid one nickel. Only their expenses will be covered.

"They have no money to pay for anything over there," Goddard said. "But I have to say, it's the most exciting thing I've worked on since Eugene McCarthy's (presidential) campaign."

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