Mikhail Gorbachev walks into a Pizza Hut. The year is 1997, six years after the end of the Soviet Union, and the leader who oversaw its dissolution is in Moscow’s Red Square to star in one of the strangest television adverts ever produced. After taking a seat alongside his granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya, Gorbachev is spotted by two men at a nearby table and a debate over his legacy ensues. “Because of him we have economic confusion!” claims a dour, middle-aged man. “Because of him we have opportunity!” fires back the younger of the pair, perhaps his son. Certainly the two are intended to represent a generational gap. While the elder complains about political instability and chaos, the younger talks of freedom and hope. It’s left to an older woman to settle the debate. “Because of him, we have many things…” she says, “…like Pizza Hut!” On that, they can all agree. The advert ends with the whole restaurant standing to chant: “Hail to Gorbachev! Hail to Gorbachev!”
Gorbachev, who has died after a “serious and long illness” at the age of 91, was not the most obvious candidate to wind up as a pizza salesman. That was sort of the point. Pizza Hut had spent the decade using high-profile figures to generate attention-grabbing advertising campaigns. In 1995, Donald Trump appeared alongside then-wife Ivana in an ad that concluded with the punchline: “Actually, you’re only entitled to half.” The following year, England defender Gareth Southgate wore a paper bag over his head in a commercial that mocked his crucial penalty miss at Euro ’96. As a former world leader and towering figure in 20th century history, however, Gorbachev was at another level entirely. Former Pizza Hut advertising executive Scott Helbing recalled that at the time Gorbachev was hired, the company “needed an idea that truly travelled across continents” for a “global campaign that would play in any country in the world.” That’s more or less what they got, although ironically one country where the advert was never shown was Russia itself.
Why did Gorbachev agree to flog pizzas? The same reason anybody does: he needed the money. After leaving office Gorbachev had started his own non-profit organisation, The Gorbachev Foundation, and before long was using his platform to become an outspoken critic of his successor as Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin. In retaliation, Yeltsin systematically removed the organisation’s means of support and reduced their office space in Moscow. Gorbachev saw the Pizza Hut money – which unconfirmed reports put in the region of $1m – as a way of protecting his beloved foundation. “At the time, I had some financial problems with my foundation so I did an advertisement for Pizza Hut,” Gorbachev told France 24 in 2007, shooting back at the idea that making adverts was beneath him. “I got the maximum, because I needed to finish the building. The workers started to leave. I needed to pay them.”