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January 8, 2024

The Story Behind the 1998 Pizza Hut Commercial That Feature Former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was featured in a 1998 television advertisement for Pizza Hut. It was filmed in November 1997 on Red Square and in a Pizza Hut restaurant elsewhere in Moscow. It was aired internationally in January 1998, but not in Russia.

In the commercial, Gorbachev and his then-10-year-old granddaughter, Anastasia, are shown walking through Moscow’s Red Square and stopping at a Pizza Hut. Spoken in Russian with English subtitles, the commercial focuses on Pizza Hut’s new Edge Pizza. A family of diners spots Gorbachev a few tables away and starts arguing about whether he took them to “the edge of economic ruin, the edge of chaos.”

“Because of him, we have freedom,” a young man tells Gorbachev’s critic. An older female sympathizer gets in the last word: “Because of him we have many things, like Pizza Hut!” This prompts others to raise a slice to chants of “Hail to Gorbachev!” The commercial hawked pizza, but it also had political overtones of Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).

Pizza Hut sign, including an American flag, while the store was being prepared for opening in 1990. The first Pizza Hut store was located at Kutuzovsky Prospect 17, on the corner of Bolshaya Dorogomilovskaya Street.

Pizza Hut opened in 1990 in Moscow, a few months after the first McDonald’s in Russia opened. It was one of the first foreign-owned restaurants that was able to open in Soviet Russia, thanks in part to Gorbachev’s own perestroika policies. The idea for a Pizza Hut in Moscow came from a personal friendship between Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin and Donald M. Kendall, CEO of Pizza Hut’s parent company PepsiCo. It was part of the largest deal ever between the Soviet Union and an American corporation. The arrangement flopped after the Soviet Union collapsed, which killed Pizza Hut’s supply chain.

Pizza Hut had frequently ordered advertisements from BBDO before. BBDO art director Ted Shaine recalled that the company “heard that [Gorbachev] was willing to do something,” but others suggest BBDO came up with the idea themselves.

It took months to negotiate a deal. Katie O’Neill Bistrian at IMG negotiated for Gorbachev. The long duration was partly to increase the fee for Gorbachev, but also represented real hesitation on his part. His wife Raisa Gorbacheva feared that the ad could harm his reputation. Gorbachev agreed under the conditions that he could give his final approval over the script. He would also not eat pizza, which disappointed Pizza Hut. O’Neill Bistrian suggested that a member of Gorbachev’s family would eat the pizza slice, which ended up being his granddaughter.

The exact amount that Gorbachev received was never disclosed, although it was argued that it was one of the largest talent fees in history. According to The New York Times, some reports indicate Gorbachev was paid close to US$1 million (equivalent to about $2M in today). Gorbachev said the money would be used for The Gorbachev Foundation, and was quoted in CNN saying:
“I’m in the process of creating a library and a perestroika archive, and this project requires certain funds. Perestroika gave impetus to Russia and to the whole world. It is very important that everything that happened be preserved in these two centers. It's an important part of life. It's not only consumption, it's also socializing. If I didn't see that it was beneficial for people, I wouldn't have agreed to it.”
O’Neill Bistrian, the director Peter Smillie and several others flew to Moscow in November 1997. The preproduction took several days. The principal photography took place over two days. Gorbachev arrived late, in a limousine. Red Square was shut down for a day during the filming. The Pizza Hut shown on Red Square was actually a jewelry store which was changed for the filming. The filming inside was done in an actual Pizza Hut restaurant in Moscow. For taking the shots of Red Square and churches, the crew hefted the film cameras on the Kremlin itself. Some challenges included the weather, which meant a low temperature and low light. The commercial was edited afterward by Clayton Hemmert from the firm Crew Cuts. He played a key role in shaping the ending of the commercial, by adding reverberation and layering chants over each other. The production costs were estimated to be in the low millions of dollars.

The commercial was broadcast in the United States during the 1998 Rose Bowl football game on January 1, but not in Russia where Gorbachev was widely criticized in the media for taking part in the advertisement. Years after the initial broadcast, the commercial became a viral video on multiple occasions. Time listed the commercial in a “Top 10 Embarrassing Celebrity Commercials” list. In a 2010 interview by the Russian magazine Snob, Gorbachev stated that he received various letters of support.


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