Commercial Advertising in Late Socialism? The Potential of Modern Business History on the Example of „Eesti Reklaamfilm“. A Research Report
The historiography of Soviet commercial advertising has until now remained rather thin and fragmented. This is partly due to a widespread misunderstanding of the purpose of Soviet advertising. The general assumption is that there was no need for commercial advertising in a planned economy, especially in one, which was constantly struggling with systematic bottlenecks causing shortages of goods. Instances of advertising are primarily understood as serving the ideological goals of communist politics.
In reality, the Soviet Union, like the other socialist states, had a highly complex advertising system. Various advertising institutions existed at different levels of the Soviet economic organization. Regular events and professional literature at the local and international level enabled transferring best practices regarding design, theory and the methods of advertising. Dedicated educational programs even allowed people to become advertising professionals.
Current historiography only manages to scratch the surface of this complex and highly relevant topic covering manufacturing, trade and consumption. The majority of existing publications are still focused on demonstrating that commercial advertising existed in the socialist world at all. Most studies apply visual history and are therefore more preoccupied with the semiotics of advertising.
As a sub-discipline of economic and social history, business history offers new and unprecedented insights on this interesting topic. It is likely to lead to new insights on the connections of the Soviet (advertising) industry within and outside the Soviet Union, on the transfer of professional knowledge, as well as on business relations and networks within this particular industry. It may also shed light on other important research questions, such as: how was it like to work in a Soviet advertising company; what was the relationship between ideology and economics; or, where did advertisement professionals get their inspiration from? Studying the Soviet advertising industry allows new insights on the interaction between agency (an advertising organization) and the system (consumers, manufacturing, trade and public institutions). Research approaches form business, social or cultural studies may serve as useful analytical prisms to conduct research in business history. However, it is necessary that the chosen research approach fits with the inherent logic of the research subject.
Based on the case study of „Eesti Reklaamfilm“ (1967–1991/98), the article at hand, illustrates the new and valuable insights that business history can provide on Soviet commercial advertising very well.