It’s not surprising to see well-known figures popping up in commercials for fast food chains. That’s advertising 101: Get a famous person to push your product. Over the years we’ve seen athletes, actors, musicians, and influencers sell us sandwiches and burgers and fried chicken. But in 1998, one Pizza Hut commercial made waves featuring former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at 91 last week. The unearthed commercial is being called an “era-defining artifact” by BBC, one that reflects the current fast food culture in Russia.
McDonald’s popped up in what was then known as the USSR on January 31, 1990, according to History. It symbolized the beginning of the end of the country’s communist state, one that the Russian people embraced.
“It was a big deal, with families putting on their Sunday bests for a visit to McDonald’s, which was treated like a dinner at a Michelin star restaurant in the early years of democracy,” Nellie Andreeva writes in Deadline. With Big Macs and Happy Meals came capitalism and a more peaceful relationship with the United States. According to The Washington Post, commercials doubled down on that idea with the slogan, “If you can’t go to America, come to McDonald’s in Moscow.”
Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies, both of which were part of his plan to reform the state, also encouraged investment from Western countries. By 1991, these policies aided in the dismantling of the Soviet Union, and by 1997, there were 21 McDonald’s locations in Russia; other chains like KFC, Subway, and Pizza Hut soon followed.
At the beginning of 2022, McDonald’s had 800 locations in Russia, all of which closed in May. Yum! Brands sold its 50 Russian Pizza Hut locations around the same time, marking yet another political shift in the alliance between Russia and the United States. Maybe if Putin starred in a commercial, things would be different.
According to BBC, Gorbachev was hesitant to appear in the commercial at first, conflicted by what further showing support for an American corporation would do to his reputation. But ultimately, he needed the money and agreed to be in the commercial on two conditions: he wouldn’t eat pizza on camera and he would have final sign-off on the script. The result is a one-minute spot that highlights how divisive he was as a leader.
In the TV spot, one pro-Gorbachev diner takes on an anti-Gorbachev diner while eating in a Pizza Hut; the duo debate the pros and cons of the former Soviet leader as they eat. But then a third person at the table chimes in, noting that without Gorbachev, they wouldn’t have Pizza Hut. Her sound argument prompts the entire restaurant to raise a slice while shouting “Hail to Gorbachev!” Gorbachev himself, meanwhile, sits at a table in the corner, serving his granddaughter a slice of pizza (though his own plate remains empty).
The commercial was controversial enough to Russian audiences that it never actually aired in the country but was instead shown internationally. Because of that, it acted more as a political statement than an advertisement for Pizza Hut, its message settling somewhere between “Business relations between Russia and the United States are good” and “Pizza is good.”
Ultimately, though, the artifact stands nearly 25 years later as an encapsulation of Gorbachev’s legacy and the continually differing views on what that legacy really meant for Russia. It’s also a reminder that in times of political turmoil, pizza from a hut can really bring people together.