Visiting Romania recently an advertisement on commercial radio caught my attention. At first there was just the engine-noise of a large approaching vehicle, being greeted by a hubbub of angry voices. Now the jostled, harassed voice of a ‘reporter’ informed you that what you were hearing was the sound of a protest, as yet another bus pulls in with standing-room only. Now another voice addressed this popular uprising through a loud-speaker: ‘You each have a right to a seat of your own!’ it declaimed, thrilling to its own visionary moral truth. At which point a third voice brusquely took command. The prices and specifications of the latest Chevrolet models were reeled off.
Point made in a matter of seconds. It was amusing and clever. And indeed the car in front of me in the traffic jam where I first heard it was a Chevrolet.
Coded half-ironic references to the people power of 1989 are, of course, not uncommon in Romanian advertising. They were being used to sell mobile telephones at the same time, I noticed. But let’s stay with Chevrolet for a moment. Their market research tells them, correctly, that the commute on out-dated and over-crowded buses is one of the most depressing features of life in Romanian cities. Common sense tells anyone that the answer is new buses and more of them. Chevrolet’s answer to the problem is, of course, Chevrolet, more air pollution and further aggravation of Bucharest’s (for example) already chronic traffic problem.
There are circumstances under which a minute or two of radio advertising can bring one uncomfortably close to questions like what freedom is for. Because the Chevrolet advertisement only sells you the car. It’s the US Ambassador, or the EU Commissioner, who sells you the motorway. As a European consortium works to complete the Bucharest – Ploiesti motorway, US Ambassador Taubman has urged the government in Bucharest to act ‘more aggressively’ on infrastructure, particularly roads. Meaning more of them, naturally. This is in no way related to Romania’s other new motorway, being built across Transylvania. The largest such project in Europe, it will be built by US construction giant Bechtel but the project has run into delays. So far as I could make out all they had done so far was the easy bit – they’d chopped down all the trees lining the old route.
But can we really pass so lightly from the triviality of radio advertising to politico-commercial machinations on the grand scale? Surely this is some sort of rhetorical legerdemain? And why pick on Romania? Doesn’t the car industry everywhere peddle the same – highly popular – version of freedom?
Indeed it does and this brings us to the main theme of the present article. Such advertising campaigns certainly aim, on one level, at selling a particular item. They also assume, however unconsciously, an idea – in this advertisement the idea of freedom – which the listener or viewer is invited to ‘buy into’ at the same time. And we could take an example of this which is specific to Romania.
Last year the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) launched an advertising campaign to promote its bid to remove four mountains in the Apuseni and extract 300 tonnes of gold in the process before moving on to other sites nearby (see www.truestory.ro). TV commercials depicted the village of Rosia Montana as a depressed rural backwater with no future. Only RMGC could ‘save’ the place. This it would do by re-locating its population whilst ‘preserving’ its main street on a kind of isthmus between the extraction pits. The company has since partly financed an Irish reporter making a documentary, Mine Your Own Business, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, arrives at much the same conclusions as its TV advertisements.
The ‘idea’ being sold alongside this gold mine is, obviously, an idea of prosperity. And RMGC has hit on a raw nerve here. Some readers may recall that prosperity was, long long ago, one of the things freedom and the West were inevitably going to bring to Romania. Things haven’t quite worked out like that, except for a very few people who were mostly doing alright under the previous dispensation anyway. So RMGC can reasonably argue: here is a specific proposal where western business interests and the interests of ‘ordinary Romanians’ at last converge. Everyone will benefit from this mine. According to the film, and the web-site set up to promote it (www.mineyourownbusiness.org), those who oppose it are an assortment of neo-religious fanatics, crypto-Stalinist Greenpeace-types and meddling middle-class foreigners. Especially meddling middle-class foreigners.
The clear-sighted Mr McAleer may have made a film largely funded by RMGC, but he in fact arrived at the same conclusions about Rosia Montana as his paymaster only after much thought. Before reaching them he interviewed someone (a foreigner) from the local NGO, Alburnus Maior. This organisation, founded and directed, as is well known, by a local Romanian farmer, has sustained the protest against the mine. The documentary also neglects to mention that one of the reasons economic alternatives to the mine are not in evidence is because the entire village was designated an ‘industrial area’ in 2002, which makes it illegal, for example, to open a Bed & Breakfast. Alburnus Maior runs a music festival each year at the end of August, attended by thousands, which takes place on a nearby hillside just outside the boundary of this ‘industrial area’.
I attended that festival last summer and it’s true that I’m a middle-class foreigner. As such I was in a tiny minority. I didn’t meet Mr McAleer, however – I guess it wasn’t his kind of event. So, like all the other opponents of the mine he didn’t meet, I guess I don’t count.
It’s true, in one sense, that I don’t. It is to be hoped that the issue will be decided, not by foreigners at all – meddling, middle-class, former Financial Times correspondents or any other kind. Ultimately this is a matter, as in any democracy, for civil society, an independent judiciary and the relevant ministries of a fairly elected government.
The argument I want to make here is on another level. Just as what an advertisement sells is ultimately an idea as well as a product, so those seeking to counter such publicity can do so only conclusively if they first identify then provide a valid critique of its underlying idea.
As Mine Your Own Business rightly points out, it is quite reasonable that Romanians should want something like West European affluence for themselves and that they don’t have more of it already does not reflect well on ‘European integration’ so-called. Environmentalists who don’t want to come across as prigs or kill-joys cannot merely oppose the likes of RMGC. Being ‘contrarian’ isn’t enough. They must also propose an attractive, thought-through alternative vision for their society and make suggestions as to how it might practically be brought about.