Marketing beer in Russia has been a special challenge since at least 2004, when the Russian Parliament banned beer ads on television between the hours of 7am and 10pm. The use of people and animals in ads is also prohibited, as well as sending the message that beer will somehow improve your health, intelligence or social life. Sound confusing and vague to you? I thought so as well, especially since a search on YouTube for Russian beer commercials turns up plenty of examples using people and implications that beer = some kind of happiness (like the examples above). But starting in July of 2012, television ads for beer will be banned altogether in Russia. So I guess that clears the whole thing up, or at least makes it a moot point.
Citing an epidemic of alcoholism in the country, President Medvedev signed the bill into law as part of his effort to cut the amount of alcohol consumed yearly per person (18 liters) by over 50% as of the year 2020. If you’re like me, you read this and think, “If you want to address alcoholism in Russian, why go after beer? Don’t they all drink vodka?” Not so. As a product, beer has been classified as a “foodstuff,” meaning it can be sold and consumed in much the same way as we Americans enjoy our soda—openly, frequently, in public, and available to buy or sell at any store or kiosk. This is one factor making Russia one of the world’s top beer-drinking countries in recent years, beating out even Germany in 2007 for billions of liters consumed (see table above). It’s also notable that growth spiked sharply even after the 2004 restrictions were put in place, indicating that the advertising changes weren’t enough to decrease beer consumption. A tripling of excise taxes on beer in 2009 brought volume down about 10% in 2010, but apparently the Kremlin thinks the Russian people still have not been adequately sobered and so further measures are necessary.
I’ve written before that regulation on its own is not enough for a public shift in perspective towards advertising; education is also required. Fortunately, media literacy in Russia is alive and relatively well—it faces many of the same challenges as in America, like lack of funding, the bureaucracy around education and teachers that are already overworked and underpaid. However, unlike in the United States, Russia also has its history of communism as part of the mix; the country’s first efforts at media literacy in the 1920s were shut down by Stalin, and a free Russian press has yet to be realized. But thanks in part to efforts from UNESCO and UNICEF, media literacy and media education is growing in Russia. (Click here for an excellent library of English-language documents on media literacy in Russia.)
Particularly given the current state of Russian politics, it’s hard to imagine that President Medvedev will endorse media criticism as a tool for fighting misleading and harmful advertising, but without it, his anti-alcoholism work will continue to be undermined. The Russian beer industry will look to new avenues like digital media, which is more difficult to regulate, and will probably sharpen its already tight focus on building brand loyalty, thus shutting out smaller brewing companies that lack the budget to pursue aggressive, out-of-the-box advertising. The best hope lies in the fact that Russia is finally acknowledging beer as an alcoholic beverage; the shift in classification will be another interesting road for Russian advertisers to navigate. But in the months leading up to full implementation of the new restrictions, the people of Russia can expect a last gasp from advertisers eager to take advantage of their relative freedom. And once the ban is put in place, advertisers will surely get creative and find loopholes to reach and retain consumers. In both cases, media literacy is the best weapon the Russians can have to fight the onslaught.
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