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Czech Republic: Billboard Advertisers Are Out To Shock Public

Prague, 8 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Under Communism there was no need for advertising. It was never a case of producers trying to convince consumers to buy their products; it was usually that desperate citizens either had to wait in long lines, bribe sales clerks or go without.

So perhaps it's not surprising that some advertisers in the newly capitalist countries are having a hard time finding the limits of what's acceptable and what's unethical. This is nowhere more evident than in the Czech Republic and Hungary, where billboard advertisements regularly provoke public outrage.

Juraj Podkonicky, deputy chairman of the Czech Republic's Advertising Council, the trade's self-regulatory body, admits that "advertising is very new in Central and Eastern Europe. It's only had eight years to establish some ethical principles." The Advertising Council itself was only set up three years ago to enforce standards in print, television and radio advertising as well as billboards.

Jiri Mikes, chairman of the Advertising Agencies' Association, says some agencies lack professionalism and mistake democracy for a license to act irresponsibly. As he put it: "They think finally we have freedom so everything is possible."

In Hungary, the Budapest Municipal Consumer Protection Authority last month ruled posters for the Hungarian edition of Cosmopolitan magazine illegal. They showed a semi-naked woman with a man's hands cupping her breasts from behind, under the caption "The Cosmopolitan reader's favorite bra." The ad was ruled harmful to young people's moral development.

In the same week, the Hungarian Consumer Protection Authority imposed a huge fine (exact amount unspecified) on RTL Klub television channel for using a photograph of Pope John Paul II to promote the TV channel on large advertising billboards.

The Pope -- or a double easily mistaken for him -- also figured in the first of a string of controversial billboards to appear in the Czech Republic this year.

The Mediarex advertising agency was warned both by the Advertising Agency (the trade body) and the Advertising Council (the self-regulatory body) over a billboard -- for an energy drink -- that had a Pope double looking wistfully at a young woman, under the headline "When you want more than you can have."

The same agency, advertising the same Erektus energy drink, struck a second time this fall with a double for then deputy prime minister Josef Lux, father of six children, with a nearly-obscene promise for the drink's effectiveness.

On the same day that billboard appeared, the agency, Mediarex, was kicked out of the Advertising Agencies' Association for its unethical behavior.

Another controversial billboard has become the subject of court action by President Vaclav Havel and his wife, who are EACH demanding 5 million Crowns (about 143,000 dollars) in damages for what they say was the abuse of their images and names.

Their ire was sparked by an advertisement for Italian Ravelli shoes featuring a green bust of Havel being licked by a white fox terrier. The ad was called "Vaclavka and Dasenka," a word play on the presidential couple's first names that suggests one is a mushroom and the other a dog. The Havels were also offended that an infamous four-letter English obscenity appeared in the ad.

However, observers of the Czech court process warn it could take one or two years for the case to work its way through the courts.

Mikes at the Advertising Agencies' Association says he is completely outraged at what he calls the "shock" tactics of the advertising agencies behind these billboards. He calls them "disgusting, unethical and a shame for the country."

He says most of the shock ads are designed not to promote a product, but to attract attention to the advertising agencies themselves.

He puts it this way: "They calculate how much it will bring. They gain immediately free of charge enormous publicity. Just look through our papers." But he said such behavior has a short life. "Consumers will turn finally turn against them," he warns.

Mikes says billboards are the major trouble spot in advertising because not only do they not follow the industry's voluntary ethics code, but also because they are so intrusive.

"With just one finger you can turn the newspaper page or switch off the radio or television if something offends you," says Mikes, "but you can't tear down stupid billboards."

Self-regulation of the advertising industry, which has a long tradition in the West, is slowly coming to the former Communist countries.

The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia are already members of the European Advertising Standards Alliance, which groups self-regulatory bodies from 25 countries.

Croatia, Russia and Hungary recently became observers of the body, and Poland set up its first advertising industry self-regulating body in June. Prague's Podkonicky is chairman of the Alliance's committee that is trying to extend self-regulation of advertising to other former Communist countries.

As for creative advertising agencies that still want to display their shock images, Mikes has this advice: "Put them in art galleries, but don't put them on billboards."