Here’s something you probably didn’t know about Soviet Russia.
You’ve no doubt heard about the bread lines, the spies, the KGB. But the lesser-known hardships were as follows: no TV commercials, no catchy jingles, no fast-food billboards, no Tony the Tiger or even Boris the Bobcat.
This is the world I grew up in. No Crest versus Colgate toothpaste. Just toothpaste. No Nike or Adidas shoes — just shoes. No choice between getting your new ornate crystal chandelier at the Home Depot or the family-owned lighting store down the street. (Another little-known fact: Russians love chandeliers arguably more than they love vodka.)
Why no brands? Because in a communist state, most industries and businesses belong to the government instead of private individuals — and no free market capitalism means no competing brands to choose from. Which means no need for advertising to vie for your attention and your precious rubles.
So no cartoon characters hawking happy meals, no star athletes selling sneakers.
Before you start thinking,“That doesn’t sound too bad…”
Well, those shoes I mentioned? The few Soviet-made pairs on the shelves were so ugly and uncomfortable that waiting in a massive line outside in the snow for the rare foreign shipment — to buy a pair that was three sizes too big — seemed like a better option than ‘buying domestic’. (Bread lines, meet your lesser-known cousin: shoe lines!)
Why did Soviet shoes suck so much?
1. BECAUSE BRANDS MAKE STUFF BETTER
When starting your own shoe business isn’t allowed, and all the shoemakers work for a government-owned factory (like my grandparents did for decades), no one has a personal stake in its success. And with no competitors in the market exerting pressure to innovate, there’s very little incentive to make crowd-pleasing performance footwear.
And those coveted chandeliers? Lack of motivation strikes again. With no competitors, the workers were arbitrarily incentivized based on how many aggregate metric tons of chandelier output they produced. Russians are innately good at math, so they quickly realized you could dramatically reduce workload by making each chandelier weigh more than Sputnik.
Of course, those poor ceilings would inevitably collapse, along with the Soviet Union.
Shortly before the collapse, my family left in search of a better life (and less Chernobyl radiation), immigrating to the proud and free nation of…Texas!
Suddenly surrounded by smiley Americans whose interests included freedom and football, I cheered on our local Dallas Cowboys as they dominated a string of Superbowls. With their self-proclaimed title as “America’s Team” coupled with the fact that excessive winning is actually everyone’s favorite pastime, I instantly fell in love with the sport, and curiously, with the advertising that sponsored it.
As an impressionable pre-teen, I was utterly mesmerized by commercials, as talking frogs and peppy jingles welcomed me to this brave new world of brands and advertising.
The first time I happened to be eating Papa John’s pizza while a commercial for Papa John’s came on, it felt like I was holding a greasy celebrity, like Papa John himself was in our living room. But I digress.
2. BECAUSE BRANDS ACTUALLY UNITE PEOPLE
Brands no doubt accelerated my transformation into a convincing American by creating instant common ground and shared language with my classmates. I didn’t need a PhD in cultural anthropology to see that the cool kids all wore the same reversible Adidas jackets, loved Cool Ranch Doritos, and cultishly revered the new Green Day album.
Because brands aren’t just about what we buy as consumers, but what we like as humans. We’re innately wired to find shared values and identity with other people. It’s the reason we instantly feel a bond with someone wearing a shirt from our alma mater or a baseball cap of our favorite team. It’s why you’re perhaps a little less critical of someone’s parking job if it’s the same car as yours. Or why a blind date suddenly seems more attractive once you learn that you both harbor an irrational hatred of green Skittles but share a gruesomely awesome addiction to The Walking Dead.
For better or worse, brands are a big part of our personal and collective identities, blurring with our non-branded tastes and interests. Sure, they may show up uninvited in our newsfeeds, awkwardly sandwiched between a coworker’s baby announcement and a friend’s weight loss progress selfie. But a world without them would be much more grim when you factor in what else we’d lose if brands disappeared. Which brings me to the next point:
3. BECAUSE BRANDS PUSH SOCIETAL PROGRESS…
At their core, brands and their iconic ads are as integral to America’s own brand identity as stars & stripes and (American) football. Ford Motors. General Electric. International Business Machines. With brands we got progress, innovation and that scrappy, entrepreneurial spirit.
The freedom to start your own business comes with a few positive side effects. Like the courage to challenge and displace older institutions (hello, Netflix, Uber, Amazon), the hunger to push the boundaries of what’s possible (Apple, Google, Tesla), and the personal rewards when your risk pays off (we all know those self-made billionaires by first name).
…BUT THEY SHOULDN’T BE SO PUSHY
A less pleasant side effect of brands seems to be their ever-increasing intrusion into our lives through more and more advertising — as they expand into new ad formats (tiny mobile banners, sponsored Tweets, even scannable stickers on fruit) and perpetually devise new reasons to take our money (‘now in cherry flavor/4G!’).
It’s 2016, and we were supposed to have hyper-relevant ads on hoverboards by now, not the same old interruptive techniques we’ve seen and heard for decades. Thankfully we’ve gotten good at avoiding most of them through Netflix, ad-blockers, and just training our brains to tune ’em out.
Between sugary soft drinks and fast food fueling obesity, child labor concerns behind our favorite tech gadgets, clothing sweatshops, car recalls, overflowing landfills, and everything potentially causing cancer, I’d be lying to say I haven’t glimpsed the darker side of consumerism after 26 years in the US.
And I wouldn’t be alone. Most people wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands disappeared tomorrow, according to a big study my former ad agency conducted about the world’s most meaningful brands. (Whoops — I forgot to mention that after my brand-less childhood in the land of killer chandeliers, I ended up with a career in advertising. I’d pay good money to know what Freud would have to say about that.)
Ten years across three ad agencies in New York and San Francisco, and it’s safe to say I’m no longer the bright-eyed girl who was star-struck by a pizza. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my optimistic American comrades, it’s to always look on the bright side.
All things considered, brands and the visionary people behind them often make our lives easier, better, more entertaining, and make the seemingly impossible, possible (I’m looking at you, Elon).
Every time you look up at the ceiling and don’t see a giant, gaping hole there, I hope it buys you a few more seconds of patience with the next pre-roll ad YouTube makes you watch before you can enjoy the latest compilation of pets interrupting yoga.
Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to make the next generation of advertising more enjoyable than waiting in a bread line.
Final Note: I showed this post to my mother, who worried about the personal risk of insulting the proverbial Motherland. Here is a quick addendum so that she can go back to worrying about normal things like me finding a husband.
**I’m not trying to fuel the flames of another Cold War or imply that capitalism is perfect. One gal’s personal life experience isn’t exactly a controlled experiment on the pros and cons of two major political/economic systems. Though if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it would seem that comfortable footwear, safe indoor lighting, and freshly baked bread are universally desired by people everywhere.**