Macho Medvedev and his PR Failure

On Nov. 24, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev posted an entry on his video blog entitled Road safety determines the quality of life, and together we can make it better. It seems pretty harmless, right? According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “It quickly turned into a PR disaster. ”

The video was an honest attempt to combat road safety in Russia, which has recently received negative media attention. Medvedev seems to have gone about this the wrong way, though. While some people were attentive enough to criticize the content of the video, others were caught up in the phony macho style in which it was conveyed. The video resembled a scene from a movie…only with bad reviews.

Take a look for yourself.

Okay, so the first 25 seconds were probably the cheesiest (at least for someone who doesn’t speak Russian). You kind of have to wonder what Medvedev was thinking when he rolled up in a shiny, luxurious  BMW X5 SUV – which is made by a German car company – sporting a black leather jacket and staring his audience dead in the eye.

Alexander Minkin, a writer at the Russian newspaper MKRU, compared it to a car commercial. He noted the spotless park in the background and impeccably clean car with a leather interior. Expecting the BMW slogan to come next, he instead got a message about road safety. A Russian blogger by the name of red star also called the video an advertisement for BMW.

One Russian YouTuber spliced together driving scenes to make his own spoof of the video. He set it to music from Bimmer, a Russian movie where a black BMW place an essential role, and included footage of Medvedev losing control of a parked vehicle in 2011 (Telegraph).

Not only was the video worth a good critique, but many people interpreted Medvedev’s proposal to fine up to 500,000 Rubles (approximately $16,000) for drunk driving as a proposal to fine this exorbitantly for minor driving violations like running a red light.

From this misinterpretation, he got many negative responses like this one from Russian billionaire and politician Mikhail Prokhorov. In a blog post, Prokhorov criticized Medvedev for not knowing how much half a million Rubles was for a typical Russian citizen. Instead, he said there ought to be improved roads in Russia and jailing for drunk drivers. He said that higher fines on driving misdemeanors would lead to increased police corruption.

To clarify, Medvedev had to post this tweet saying that the high fines he was proposing were only to be imposed on drunk drivers:

Although Prokhorov’s blog post was written based on unclarified information, he brought to light many issues with traffic crimes and accidents that Medvedev wasn’t addressing. He also echoed the perception that Medvedev was above the common people of Russia.

This billboard was put up by a Russian activist in Moscow protesting the lack of delivery on more stringent drunk driving penalties by the government. (Image from the blog MetroDream by Russos)

Medvedev’s proposal came among increased focus on drunk driving in Russia. In addition to proposing increased fines on drunk drivers, Medvedev has also ordered the government to draft legislation to raise the penalty for causing death while driving drunk from five years in prison to 15 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).

The photo to the right expresses the feelings of many Russians. It shows a fake Health Ministry billboard ad that was put up by an activist in October. It says, “We’re tired of warnings. Stop [expletive] drunk driving.” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

Medvedev is working to combat drunk driving, but if he wants to be taken seriously by the Russian people, he will have to rethink his public image. His road safety video blog was a PR failure to say the least. It’s probably time for Medvedev to drop the macho man image he was attempting. It doesn’t work as well for him as it does for Vladimir Putin (the current Russian president).


IKEA Refuses to Make Political Statement in Russia

This post was originally published on Oct. 13 and then revised on Dec. 5.

If IKEA was a person, I might describe his (yes IKEA would be a boy, and you’ll understand why later) recent developments of personal identity kind of– well–there’s no better way to put it than just plain pussy. Since IKEA is a corporate entity, though, its recent advertising botches and lack of political willpower are perhaps to be expected.

The balaclava masks in this customer-submitted photo have become a trademark of the Pussy Riot arrests. (Image from

Last month, a customer from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg submitted a photo portraying four young adults wearing balaclava masks while sitting on IKEA furniture to IKEA’s website ( IKEA quickly pulled the image from the website. According to the Moscow Times, the company replaced it with the following statement:

“IKEA is a commercial organization that operates beyond politics and religion. We cannot allow our advertising project to be used as a means of propaganda of any kind.”

IKEA labeled the Pussy Riot evoking image as “propaganda” and refused to take a religious or political stand in the Pussy Riot situation. (Image from Edge of the Sandbox)

‘What’s so offensive about brightly colored masks?’ you might ask. Pussy Riot is a Russian, feminist punk band that has been causing a storm of publicity over the past few months. Some of the band’s members were recently arrested and are now being sentenced to imprisonment for an act of hooliganism, which they performed while wearing masks similar to those in the IKEA customer’s photo above. Read more about the Pussy Riot controversy in a Eurokulture blog post entitled “A Punk Band’s Prayer – Deliver Us from Putin” by Dmitry Choukline.

The contest was a part of Russia’s marketing campaign, “Face of the Cover,” which encourages shoppers in Russian MEGA malls to take their photo in front of the IKEA Catalogue cover and submit it online. Customers then vote on their favorite image, and the winner is featured in IKEA’s marketing and advertising (Wall Street Journal).

Before the image in question was removed, it garnered 1,431 likes – more than any other submission that week (First Post).

James Thomas Snyder, a blogger out of Washington D.C. who has written extensively about foreign policy, was infuriated by IKEA’s decision to pull the image from their website.

“It’s important to parse IKEA’s statement to understand just exactly how cowardly, stupid and hypocritical it is. IKEA has no grounds to pull this image and to replace it with this utterly misleading and disingenuous statement,” wrote Snyder. “The political can be defined by moral norms that we choose for others.  And in this case, IKEA is unwilling to allow others — that is, Russians — to express those particular norms in their own, free way, using IKEA as a platform.”

He argued that IKEA didn’t ultimately have to use the image for their catalogue cover but shouldn’t have removed it from the site. He called IKEA’s acts hypocritical, recalling a controversial ad that the company ran in Italy just last year.

The ad in question portrayed a gay couple with IKEA shopping bag in hand. It read, “Siamo aperti a tutte le faiglie.” or “We are open to all families.” IKEA experienced backlash from Catholic, conservative Italians who claimed that they were eroding family values (The Inspiration Room).

Most of Italy is Catholic and conservative, so this ad caused negative backlash when it ran in 2011. (Image from the

Snyder found no fault with the portrayal of a gay couple in IKEA’s advertising…until IKEA took down the Pussy Riot image. He said they made a political statement in Italy, but didn’t allow their customers to make a political statement of their own in Russia.

I very much agree with Snyder’s position on IKEA’s hypocrisy in this situation. Right now, advertisers are using more engaging means to interact with potential and current buyers. When a brand’s constituents enter in on a participatory marketing measure, the opinions of the participants don’t necessarily represent the opinions of the brand.

I think IKEA’s reaction to the balaclava image was made in haste. Their immediate reaction was to hush any disruption that might occur on their site. When you look at other brands using social networking, blogs or other shopper-submitted input, the smart ones do not restrict the opinions of those shoppers. It reduces their credibility.

Just because someone puts a bad review on their site, doesn’t mean they should delete it. In order to appear honest and authentic, brands should not censor user input. The balaclava image wasn’t a reflection on IKEA’s ideals at all until it was removed. It represented the ideas of the submitters, but when it was removed it showed just how ready IKEA is to quell user opinions. IKEA opened itself up to controversy with its hasty reaction.

The image on the left shows a picture from the standard copy of the IKEA Catalogue, while the image on the right shows the woman airbrushed out for the Saudi Arabian catalogue. (Image from the Wall Street Journal)

Still wondering why I gendered IKEA a boy?

Shortly after removing the Russian image from their website, IKEA made another advertising move in Saudi Arabia that critics like Snyder might find cowardly. The company was discovered airbrushing women out of their catalogue before running the images in Saudi Arabia.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia does not prohibit women from being portrayed in marketing materials, even though women are restricted from basic rights like studying without permission or driving a car. IKEA apologized for the airbrushed images but seems to be botching every political advertising issue that comes their way. The company issued a statement saying:

“We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the IKEA Group values.”

I’m starting to wonder what those group values are. got a laugh out of the apology, amazed that IKEA could apologize for, “Values like, you know, not erasing women’s existence.”

In 2000, IKEA faced rejection of two ads it created for the Moscow metro for an entirely different reason. One bragged, “Every 10th European was made in our beds.” The other had an image of the IKEA Catalogue and claimed that it was, “The most-read publication in the world. After the Bible, thank God” (The Moscow Times). These ads were rejected because they were perceived as being to forward.

Over the past year, IKEA seems to have learned a lesson about taking political stands and being controversial. Unfortunately, it seems to be the wrong lesson. Instead of inviting conversation that includes but does not directly implicate their brand, they are shunning controversy.

The Saudi Arabia incident illustrates this well, but I think the real cowardliness of IKEA was displayed through the removal of the balaclava ad. Instead of opening itself up for controversy by removing the ad, IKEA should have left the ad up and allowed controversy over the image itself to stir. This would have created exposure for the brand without shining a political light on the company. IKEA could have stood by a policy of non-censure and simply said that it does not support all opinions expressed in user submissions.

IKEA has done a bang-up job of expressing its own political opinions, but it’s time for the company to stop shying away from the opinions of others. I for one am ready for IKEA to get its marketing mojo back.

Russia’s Will May be Healthy, but its Lungs Are Black as Night

I was impressed when the hookah-addicted caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland blew smoke rings and letters into the air. But if someone could blow smoke rings in the shape of R-U-S-S-I-A for me, that would be more unsurprising than anything.

Unlike Alice in Wonderland‘s chillest character, many Russian smokers get their kicks from plain old tobacco cigarettes. Russia’s tobacco market is second only to China’s.

My lungs hurt just typing this, but 39% of Russians are habitual smokers. The majority–yeah, over 50%–of men smoke, and 2.5% of the country’s GDP is directed towards the Tobacco industry each year (Bloomberg BusinessWeek).

Keep those statistics in mind, when I tell you that Russia banned all TV and radio tobacco ads in 1996, nixed all outdoor advertising for tobacco products in 11 years later ( Ria Novosti), ratified the anti-tobacco convention of the World Health Organization four years ago and signed the Government Concept for Restriction of Tobacco Consumption just two years ago (The Telegraph).

It sure looks like progress, until you look back at how little effect these measures have had.

The Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation made another move against tobacco at the very end of August., publishing a bill proposal to outlaw cigarette advertising immediately within the country and ban kiosk sale of cigarettes and smoking in public building by the beginning of 2015 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek).

Other countries in Europe have taken an effective – key word, there – stand against tobacco. Last week, Russian news was full of stories about the new Ukrainian ban on all advertising of tobacco products, which just went into effect Sept. 16 (Ukrainian News).

Belarus and Kazakhstan’s complete ban on tobacco advertising as well. Daria Khalturina, who is the co-chairman for the Russian Coalition for Tobacco Control, wrote an article for RBC Daily. She thinks this type of measure ought to be enacted in Russia.

She said, “It did not destroy the advertising industry, not shake their economies and cause civil unrest” (roughly translated).

Khalturina is just one of 82.5% of Russians who support this type of ban. Also among supporters is Russian blogger Alexander Polishchuck, who began smoking as a teenager. He was influenced by images of celebrities like actress Audrey Hepburn and musician Viktor Tsoi, who were constantly taking a drag from a coffin nail. For him and many others, it was easier to go with the tide than against it.

On his site, Pulp Fiction, Polishchuck said he doesn’t want his 10-year-0ld daughter to fall into the same sort of media trap. He revieved over 1,000 comments on his blog post and encouraged readers to sign a petition against tobacco advertising in Russia.

On the other hand, citizens like Russian blogger Mary Butin suggest a ban on smoking only on state, regional and municipal property so as not to infringe upon property rights–a valid point that has been completely disregarded in other countries. Regardless of the degree of enforcement, most Russians agree that their country needs to kick it’s tobacco habit.

I believe that Russia has the heart to get rid of its worst addiction. But as matters stand now, smoking is likely to carry over into the next generation. I guess we’ll see if the political actors in Russia have the willpower to take an action against the big tobacco companies. Anyone want to take bets?

Every Russian Coffee a Starbucks Coffee…or Not So Much?

Russians take their coffee very seriously.

Americans may be used to a Starbucks on every corner and downing a cup o’ Joe every morning. But Russian coffee lovers make American coffee cups look like tea mugs.

Starbucks conducted a study this past Spring surveying coffee trends in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It showed that Russian coffee drinkers would rather give up social networking than their daily shot of espresso. Call me American, but if I had to choose between coffee and Facebook, I’d be drinking tea every morning.

Starbucks conducted this study at a pivotal time in their attempts to establish a reputation in Russia. Starbucks Russia began in 2007, bringing the taste of Seattle to yet another country. Now, there are 56 Starbucks locations throughout Russia.

At the end of August, the attention placed on Starbucks spiked in Russia. Agency BBDO Moscow placed Starbucks postcards in fashion shops and bookstores near Russian coffee shops. They also handed them out to passersby.

The postcards could be folded into coffee cup sleeves, so every coffee could become a Starbucks coffee. The goal was to establish the brand in Russia.

Photo Source:

Surprise, surprise, though….Huffington Post reported that Starbucks had nothing to do with the campaign. After news stories about the postcards began popping up, company representative Maggie Jantzen denied Starbucks involvement. Starbucks has used BBDO Moscow before but had no knowledge of the postcards.

You might be wondering why Starbucks would deny such an interesting campaign. This bold act by Agency BBDO Moscow produced mixed results.

BBDO Moscow said that Starbucks’ reputation increased as a result of the campaign, but others criticized the campaign for working against small, local coffee shops throughout Russia. Marketing sites like Creativity Online and Ukrainian marketing site  Proreklamu praised the bold move, while the design blog Feel Desain and it’s readers questioned it.

There have also been mixed opinions about the acceptance of Starbucks into Russia’s culture as Starbucks looks to open a store in St. Petersburg this fall. A blog post by pure_linen, a Russian blogger, attracted a lot of attention in the Russian blogging community.

Some respondents to the blog were overjoyed with the fact that Starbucks is expanding in Russia. They admired the way Starbucks writes customer names on their cups and commended the taste of Starbucks’ coffee. Nobody was too very excited about the food products that Starbucks sells, though.

There was also the other end of the spectrum expressed on the blog. Readers contrasted the US and Europe’s consumerist culture with that of Russia. They disliked the idea of digging to the bottom of their wallet just to pay for a sub-par cup of coffee and couldn’t understand all of the hype.

I want to hear your opinion. Do you think that Starbucks has a place in Russia’s future coffee culture?