"In America, there's plenty of Lite Beer and you can always find a party.
In Russia, Party always finds you." -- Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff in commercial for Miller's Lite Beer By Caroline E. Mayer Washington Post Staff Writer
Just as President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have started to take steps to thaw Soviet-American relations, the cold war appears to be heating up -- at least as far as American television commercials are concerned.
From Miller Lite's putdown of the Communist Party to the Maryland Lottery's depiction of two Soviet cosmonauts longing for "frost-free refrigerators" to the Wendy's International representation of a dreary Russian fashion show, American advertisers are taking aim at the Soviet Union.
Take Russian emigre Yakov Smirnoff, for example, who notes that, in addition to Miller's Lite Beer, he discovered "many wonderful things" when he came to the United States -- including "blue jeans and unopened mail."
The cosmonauts, on the other hand, having activated their "Lottoski Machinski" as their spaceship floats over Maryland, dream of winning the Maryland Lottery. After thinking about "American girlskis," "Cadillacski," "Mercedes Benzski" and "Rolls-Royceskis," both cosmonauts break out in big grins when they remember frost-free refrigerators.
Similarly, there is Comrade Petrinko, who has embezzled money from a foreign embassy by overcharging the embassy for the expensive-tasting but inexpensively priced Meister Brau beer. Now, Petrinko is eagerly looking for a "big American automobile with tailfins."
In Wendy's version of a Russian fashion show, a heavyset Russian woman models day wear, evening wear and swim wear. The dress, a drab gray wool sack with matching hat, is the same in each case. Only the accessories are different: a flashlight for evening wear and a beach ball for swim wear.
Advertisers say that the rash of Soviet parodies is purely coincidental. "If we were in a trend, we were certainly unaware of it," said Robert J. Laird, chief deputy director of the Maryland State Lottery, echoing the sentiments of the other companies.
Yet Soviet-watchers, noting the increased attention being paid to the Soviet Union and its new leader Gorbachev, are not surprised.
"The Soviets were out of our consciousness for a while," said Jonathan Sanders, a Soviet specialist at Columbia University in New York. "Then, with all the funerals and pomp and circumstance, and all the news about the successor -- a new young man taking over -- we have become more aware of the Soviets in the world."
Advertisers are poking fun at the Russians -- perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes in many instances, Sanders noted -- because "we feel more confident of our lead over the Soviets. So we can put them down. Right after Sputnik, I bet you we wouldn't have dared think of this."
Even so, the promotions have drawn the ire of some peace activists who complain that, coming at this time, they may undermine Reagan's and Gorbachev's peace-making efforts. The Wendy's ad seems to be drawing the greatest criticism.
"It is demeaning to Russia," said Edward Snyder, executive secretary of the Quakers' American Friends Service Committee. "It is especially inappropriate now that the president met with Gorbachev, and it could be detrimental to peace and good relations."
The Quaker group and other church-related organizations have filed complaints with Wendy's.
The fast-food chain, however, defends its campaign, which includes another soon-to-be aired commercial satirizing Soviet life. In that commercial, a Russian couple is trying to decide which of two Soviet-made cars they should buy, the "Zdit" or the "Zdat." Despite the salesmen's representations that the cars are different, neither the salesmen nor the couple can figure out which is which.
"We've gotten about 120 letters" in the head office, said Denny Lynch, vice president for corporate communications. "We serve 3 million customers a day, so obviously that's not a lot" of criticism for the commercial that won an award from the advertising industry last summer.
Besides, Lynch added, Wendy's got hundreds more letters for its famous "Where's the Beef?" ad. Those letters criticized the company for making fun of older people.
Lynch said that Wendy's began developing its Soviet parodies 18 months ago, long before the summit meeting even was planned.
"We wanted a commercial that communicated that there were more choices available at Wendy's" than at other fast-food chains, explained Robert Reed, executive vice president of Dancer Fitzgerald Sample Inc., the New York advertising agency that created the advertising campaign. To achieve that goal, Reed said, "We looked for a parody of a situation where you don't get a lot of choices. Under the Russian system, they've got a lot fewer choices than under our system."
Reed said that the ads did not intend to poke fun directly at the Soviet Union -- although a previous ad done by the same advertising firm did. That ad, done for Royal Crown Cola, took direct aim at the Soviet's decision to allow the sale of Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, but not RC Cola, in the Soviet Union.
Showing a cadre of unsmiling party workers drinking Coke and Pepsi under the ever-watchful eyes of Lenin, the ad suddenly switches to a "faraway" place in snowy Russia where workers are partying and dancing as they drink RC Cola.
"Somewhere, there are people who go out of their way for the taste of RC Cola," the advertisement says. Just then, there is a knock at the door and two solemn-looking men in gray coats appear. The partying stops. "Sometimes," the commercial adds, it is "not far enough."
So far, the advertisers have not heard any complaints from the Soviets.
The Soviets "may take these ads seriously," predicted Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard. "They lack a sense of humor and may say these are just another sign of American hostilities toward the Soviet Union."
Goldman added that, in fact, the parodies "may be Gorbachev's own fault. He has become so popular, and such a media figure that we are much more aware of the human side of the Soviet Union."