It is undoubtedly, for the world as a whole, one of the most striking advertisements of the 1990s. A few years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Mikhail Gorbachev offered his stature as an ex -superpower leader in an American fast-food chain, Pizza Hut, a symbol of triumphant capitalism if ever there was one.
In 2019, political scientist Paul Musgrave devoted a long article in the journal Foreign Policy to the very particular history of this mythical spot which, year after year, continues to circulate regularly online when the others have long since sunk into collective oblivion. .
“For the people who created the ad – the agents, the creatives, the performers – it was a major achievement, writes the American. But for Gorbachev himself, the story of this advertisement is a tragedy: that of a man trying to find – and finance – a place in a country that wanted nothing more to do with him.
Paul Musgrave thus returns to the discrepancy between the image of Gorbachev in the Western world, that positive of a progressive and peaceful leader, and that within the countries of the former Soviet bloc where, from the fall of the Soviet Union and the seizure of power by his enemy Boris Yeltsin, he had become a political pariah.
The two men, moreover, hated each other; “If they hang us both, make sure they don’t hang from the same tree as me”, Gorbachev reportedly said, oddly bitter, of his successor. Despite his deplorable internal image, he still believed in the 1990s in the future importance of his political role in the new Russia. An influence in particular carried by its foundation, to which Yeltsin quickly cut off part of the food.
In 1991, Gorbachev was awarded an official pension of 4,000 rubles a month. But it was not then indexed to inflation: as Meduza reported in 2018, the former leader’s pension was only worth 2 euros per month in 1994.
To complete the building and pay the staff of his political foundation, Gorbachev therefore had an urgent need for money, which his services and conferences given all over the world, although highly paid, were not enough to provide.
At the same time, Pizza Hut needs an international figure to hook the train of its global development, “of an idea that can actually travel across continents”, to use the words of an ex of the chain, Scott Helbing. It is the firm BDDO which, for years, has produced the advertisements for the brand.
The slightly crazy idea germinates there to hire Gorbachev for an advertisement shot in Russia, and intended to be broadcast all over the world. It is still necessary to negotiate the thing: the ex-Soviet leader is not represented by anyone, and it is Katie O’Neill Bistrian who will act as intermediary.
She makes contact with the Russian’s entourage, who hesitates when the idea is presented to her. His wife Raisa Gorbachev in particular has serious reservations about the tarnished image that an appearance in such a Western, if capitalist, advertisement could generate. But her husband Mikhail urgently needs money.
So he made himself desired, negotiated for several months, raised the stakes, represented by Katie O’Neill Bistrian. No one knows how much the contract, in the end, brought him. “This could be one of the biggest star payouts in history, an amount that today would easily climb to a seven-figure sum”writes Musgrave.
It does, however, set some conditions. He wishes to be able to give his imprimatur to the final script. More strangely, he refuses to be filmed eating pizza. “As a former leader, it’s impossible”, he justifies himself. A compromise is found: it will be his granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya who, in the spot, will swallow the thing.
Filming took place in 1997, in Russia. Big resources are put on the table by BDDO, which wants the film to have a cinematographic quality. Part of the commercial is shot in Red Square, with the crew even managing to film some wide, exterior shots from the top of the Kremlin. The interior scenes are filmed in another restaurant, larger and in operation.
Interviewed during the shooting, Gorbachev declares to justify his participation in the campaign that “pizza is for everyone”. “It’s not just consumption, he explains, it is also about socialization.”
In fact, the advertisement shows a discussion among Muscovites on the results of the Gorbachev era. A young man is ecstatic about the openness to the world, the freedoms, the new opportunities. An older guy, possibly his father, regrets the old days of communism, laments political instability and economic confusion.
Everyone finally agrees on an unstoppable argument, prompted by a woman, perhaps an old aunt: thanks to Gorbachev, the Russians finally have access to good western, or more precisely American, pizza. It’s enough to resonate “Hooray for Gorbachev!” (“Z Gorbacheva!”) at the end of the advertisement, in the restaurant then everywhere in the city.
Congratulations in Russian seeming to come from the capitalist world rather than from Russia itself, which will have offered only lack of love and disinterest to its old leader after his departure.
The irony is that a year after the commercial was shot, in 1998, Russia will suffer a major financial crisis, which will permanently wipe out its burgeoning new economy. It is said that the restaurant where the advertisement was shot had to close its doors. Mikhail Gorbachev himself later admitted to seeing almost all of his earnings wiped out by the storm. But the images remained.