MOSCOW — The film clips open with a trip down memory lane. As ordinary Russians--a farmer, babushka, factory worker or schoolteacher--talk about growing up under the Communist system, the camera flips through their old photos, like a family album.
They share the stories of how forced collectivization, purges, shortages and other Soviet-era deprivations affected their lives, and of the new struggles and successes their families have experienced under Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Then, speaking to the camera from a field, living room, office or classroom, they explain in salt-of-the-earth language why they will vote for Yeltsin in the hotly contested June 16 presidential election.
"I want order in the country so the factories would work again," a fiftysomething lathe operator tells millions of viewers across Russia. "If the Communists come to power, there will be disorder. They will again issue ration coupons.
"There's a popular saying: Don't change horses in midstream," he adds. "Let [Yeltsin] stay."
The one-minute spots--which close with the words "I believe, I love, I hope" and Yeltsin's signature--are the foundation of a sophisticated political ad campaign the likes of which Russians have never seen.
These everyman defenders of Yeltsin appear on all the major television stations throughout the day, with air-time costs of up to $30,000 per minute.
The candidates are allotted 10-minute slots of free air time; in Yeltsin's segments, the short commercials alternate with longer testimonials to the president by beloved Russian celebrities: actors, athletes, musicians and intellectuals. Nowhere does Yeltsin's face appear.
The packages are so compelling that even members of the campaign team of Yeltsin's toughest opponent fail to hide their envy.
"They're extremely slick," said Alexander A. Prokhanov, editor of the newspaper Zavtra, a mouthpiece for the campaign of Communist candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov. "Communists cannot afford to hire brilliant image-makers like Yeltsin did."
Yeltsin has raised almost $3 million--the maximum allowed--for his ad campaign and has spent a little less than half that. Zyuganov has spent less than $75,000, Russia's Central Election Committee told the Interfax news service.
The costly campaign could give Yeltsin a needed boost in a tough reelection battle.
"It's a terrific approach to use ordinary people," said Alexander A. Oslon, a pollster and director of the Public Opinion Foundation. "The undecided voters are more likely to make up their minds based on the ads than on anything else."
"It's true," Prokhanov, from Zyuganov's team, reluctantly agreed, "these ads may play well with undecided voters."
In contrast, most of the other 10 candidates, including Zyuganov, use their 10 minutes to sit in front of a camera, talking in monotonous tones.
In Zyuganov's 10-minute clip, he sits on a park bench with an interviewer and rambles about his platform and Yeltsin's failures. The piece closes with Soviet-style footage of Zyuganov marching in a large parade of military veterans wearing tight uniforms covered with medals and hoisting red banners with patriotic slogans.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose presidential bid has almost no support, holds a stack of papers and delivers a droning speech, like the ones he was famous for when he was in charge.
Surprisingly, ultranationalist firebrand Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky stands calmly and describes himself as the only choice for those who despise both the Communists and the democrats.
"Yeltsin is not the only one who thought he could change his image," said Oslon, the pollster. "Zhirinovsky has stopped shocking the public and started to act like a serious politician."
The ad for pro-reform challenger Grigory A. Yavlinsky, who has spent about $1 million on his media campaign, shows a documentary-style profile of the candidate.
Each of the television spots is designed to give the candidate exposure--except Yeltsin's.
"Other candidates have to solve the problem of recognition," said Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, the Yeltsin campaign official in charge of image making. "We thought that that sort of direct commercial was not enough. Besides, Yeltsin's face is on television all the time. We don't need to show his face. When normal people campaign for Yeltsin, it's better than Yeltsin campaigning for himself."
The campaign sent camera crews around the country asking people whom they intended to vote for, then shooting interviews with those who favored Yeltsin. The ads were edited by a high-priced Russian ad firm.
At each step of the way, focus groups were consulted. They showed that personal tales of average Russians have a deeper impact than a classic campaign ad.
"They are more touching," Nikonov said. "They appeal to people's emotional sides."
Instead of heaping praise on Yeltsin, the subjects talk about their problems and his mistakes but strongly argue that turning back to the Communists would cause even more pain and uncertainty: