the incredible story of the Pizza Hut ad, starring the former Soviet leader

We can have fingered the nuclear button and, less than ten years later, play the sandwich man for pizzas, American ones at that. If the tributes paid to Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday August 30 at the age of 91, return first to his policy of relaxation, carried out when he led the USSR, he also stood out in the 1990s for another role: that of guest-star in a Pizza Hut ad.

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The 60-second spot features him in a Moscow restaurant of the American brand, located on Red Square. Seated with his granddaughter, the former Soviet leader is recognized by the customers of a nearby table, who shout at each other in Russian:

– “Because of him, we are entitled to economic confusion and political instability”grumbles a middle-aged man, who instigates hostilities among the customers.
– “Thanks to him, we have opportunities and freedom!”replies a young man.
– “Thanks to him, we have a lot of things… Like Pizza Hut”concludes an elderly lady.

Unstoppable. The spot concludes with customers raising their cheese-dripping pizzas, chanting: “Hats off Gorbachev!”while the former Soviet leader also serves a slice of pizza to his granddaughter.

But how did the man who led the fall of the USSR come to play his own role in an ad for an American brand? The cameo was far from written. When IMG, Pizza Hut’s advertising agency, racks its brains to relaunch the brand, whose latest pizza does not unleash enthusiasm, it decides to renew the faces of the firm. In this year 1997, two names emerge: Mikhail Gorbachev or Mohamed Ali, the ex-outcast boxer who has become a consensual figure.

‘Gorby’ is the first choice, but IMG embarks on months of negotiations to convince the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the magazine says Foreign Policy. The former Russian leader, who has become unpopular in his country, is playing for time to raise the stakes, but also because his entourage, particularly his wife Raïssa, fears that this spot will permanently damage his international reputation. It is against a check for the amount still secret, estimated, according to the sources cited by the American press, between 160,000 and one million dollars (largely more than what Pamela Anderson, the brand’s latest muse at the time, has obtained) that Gorbachev gives in to the advances of big capital.

On certain conditions: having control over the script and not eating pizza in front of the camera. Much to the chagrin of Scott Helbing, the advertising mastermind at Pizza Hut at the time, when interviewed by Foreign Policy : “We always wanted the hero of the spot to eat a slice of it.” “As a former head of state, I will not do it”, retorted Gorbachev. End of the discussion.

Even if it means poaching a world star, you might as well play the blockbuster to the end. Red Square is closed for a whole day for the wide shots, as well as the scene where Gorbachev, wearing a cap that covers his famous birthmark, crosses the esplanade under an umbrella, accompanied by his granddaughter.

If it took him months to accept the offer of the industrial pizza giant, “Gorby” continues to drag his feet until the day of the shooting. “It was real torture… Falling to such a level!”he confided years later to the Russian magazine Snob. Sign of his bad will, he takes care to arrive late for the first takes, narrates Foreign Policy. Director Ted Shaine slips to him: “Look, you’re in a big production!” Replica of a more inspired “Gorby”: “I’ve been involved in way too many big productions in this place…”

In the United States, the advertisement is broadcast on January 1, 1998 at halftime of the Rose Bowl, a very big American football university competition. She immediately enters the legend of the most embarrassing clips in the history of advertising. Subsequently, the Soviet leader may have justified himself on numerous occasions on the merits of this sequence, we can feel him pulling out the oars. In the press release accompanying the broadcast of the advertisement in particular, Gorbachev mentions a personal project: “I am creating a library on perestroika [sa politique de libéralisation de l’économie soviétique, initiée en 1985].

He attempts another justification with the New York Times in 1997 : [La pizza], it is an important part of life. It’s not just consumption, it’s socializing, bringing people together.” In the same interview, he acknowledges that he would have considered this proposal “inadmissible” a few years earlier. But his successor at the head of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, has just kicked him out of the building he had allocated to the Gorbachev Foundation and it is not the conference fees that will be enough to build the building of her dreams. At Guardianin 1998, Gorbachev admitted: “I needed the money… And the economic crisis practically put me out of business.” Same speech to France 24, in 2007: “I’ve done two ads in ten years, there really is nothing to whip a spade about. I needed money, I had taken out a loan to build my foundation building. The workers were starting to leave.

Ironically, the spot was not even broadcast in Russia, because of the unpopularity of the former leader, who came out of a bowl with 0.5% of the vote in the 1996 presidential election. Pizza Hut’s attempt to establish itself in Russia – in particular with a pizza adapted to Russian tastes with mackerel, sardines and salmon – fizzled out. In 1998, the chain withdrew from Russia because of the economic crisis, which also reduced Gorbachev’s woolen stocking to nothing.

In 2010, he assured the Russian magazine Snob that this spot earned him an abundance of support letters. “Boris Yeltsin expected me to discredit with this ad. And letters came from everywhere: ‘Bravo Gorbachev!’ People’s reaction has been very positive. Everyone saw that I didn’t steal that money.” This is his version of the story. In a CNN vox pop when the spot was released, a Muscovite taunted his former leader in unkind terms: “And then he’s going to do a commercial for Tampax too?”

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