“In Soviet Georgia” - The Story Behind The Cult Yogurt Ad
18 April, 2015
“In Soviet Georgia” - The Story Behind The Cult Yogurt Ad
In 1977 American TV viewers tuning in for the usual evening programming were greeted with a new commercial featuring a vivacious elderly man (described as 89 years old) and his equally vivacious mother (114 years old), enjoying yogurt. The implied message of the advertisement was clear: Eat yogurt because it promotes vitality and longevity!

“In Soviet Georgia,” as this ad campaign became known, was the first American commercial series to be filmed in the Soviet Union.

This highly memorable ad
campaign was promoting the products of the Danone Company, a food corporation established in 1919 in Barcelona. During World War II, the Danone Company moved its operations to the United States, where it faced major hurdles. It struggled to establish itself in the American market where yogurt had long remained a niche product that most Americans found unpalatable. Alexandre Mikaberidze, an Associate Professor at Louisiana State University, told us the story behing the cult ad.
In the 1970s, Danone’s president Juan Metzger launched a major advertising campaign to showcase the healthy qualities of yogurt. In 1975, he approached the marketing agency Marsteller Inc. with a request for a new campaign promoting Dannon’s brand of yogurts. Creative director, Peter Lubalin, and art director Joe Goldberg, who were both responsible for some of the best ad campaigns Marsteller had ever produced, were given the assignment. While researching the “yogurt subject,” Lubalin and Goldberg came across several geotv.gearticles about longevity published in Scientific American, National Geographic and Nutrition Today by Dr. Alexander Leaf, professor at Harvard University Medical School.

The unfaltering Gabriel Chapniani (who lived for 117 years, according to official documents) explained that his secret of longevity was in “active physical work, and a moderate interest in alcohol and the ladies.”

In his quest to understand what factors contributed to a long and healthy life, Dr. Leaf spent two years (1971-1972) visiting three areas of the world that were renowned for their longevity: Vilcabamba in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, the Hunza people near the China and the Afghanistan border, and Abkhazia in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Leaf was well aware about the large number of centenarians (people above 100 years old) residing in the Caucasus. The 1970s census revealed that about 5,000 centenarians lived in the region, with more than 1,800 of them living in Georgia. So with the help of Professor G. Pitskhelauri, head of the Gerontological Center in Tbilisi, Dr. Leaf traveled to Georgia in 1972. He visited Abkhazia and interviewed many centenarians, including the unfaltering Gabriel Chapniani (who lived for 117 years, according to official documents) who explained that his secret of longevity was in “active physical work, and a moderate interest in alcohol and the ladies.” In his article, Leaf described the centenarians consuming a lean and healthy diet that included locally produced yogurt.

“Georgian people consume enormous quantities of yogurt. They eat it at almost every meal,” Lubalin observed in his notes.

geotv.geIntrigued by this information, Lubalin and Goldberg dug deeper. Their research showed that the consumption of matsoni, a close local relative to yogurt, was particularly high in Georgia. “[Here] people consume enormous quantities of yogurt. They eat it at almost every meal,” Lubalin observed in his notes. “There is another curious thing about these people. They live to well over 100. In a moment of brilliance, we concluded that perhaps there is an idea in this.” The ad men quickly created a storyboard about old people working in fields and doing house chores while enjoying a cup of Dannon. It proved to be rather easy to convince the Danone executives to approve this concept: “We sold this 30-second spot to our client in exactly 30 seconds,” Lubalin later boasted.
In June 1976 the Marsteller ad agency contacted the Soviet diplomats and requested permission to visit Georgia and shoot a commercial there. “A pleasant surprise,” Lubalin soon jotted down in his notes. “We learned the Russians are enthusiastic about our project and eager to cooperate.”
With permission secured and visas granted, producer Arlene Hoffman flew to Georgia in July of 1976 to scout out locations and recruit the locals. Her main goal was to find a “90-year old man with a mother.” Just two days after arriving to Georgia, she called Lubalin to ask if an “89-year-old man with a mother” was acceptable.

Highlighting yogurt’s healthy qualities, the ads told the viewers, “In Soviet Georgia, where they eat a lot of yogurt… a lot of people live past 100.”

With all arrangements completed, the Marsteller ad team boarded the flight to the Soviet Union. Upon reaching Sokhumi, they were immediately introduced to the Georgian custom of “endless toasting at meals.” Over the next few days they drove to the villages of Kutol and Duripshi, where they recruited local centenarians – Tarkuk Lasuria (age 96), Temur Vanacha (age 105), Kasteh Tania (age 101), Shadat Marchulia (age 103), etc. – and filmed them performing various tasks before heartily enjoying a cup of Dannon yogurt. geotv.ge
Highlighting the yogurt’s healthy qualities, the ads told the viewers, “In Soviet Georgia, where they eat a lot of yogurt… a lot of people live past 100.” The camera then zoomed in on elderly man sampling Dannon, which he thought was really fine yogurt. “He ought to know,” says the voice-over. “He has been eating yogurt for 105 years!” One of the most memorable commercials showed an old man eating Dannon yogurt, with a woman, described as his 114-year-old mother, looking fondly at him. The voiceover noted, “89-year old Bagrat Tabaghua... ate two cups. That pleased his mother very much.”
“In Soviet Georgia,” as this ad campaign became known, was the first American commercial series to be filmed inside the Soviet Union. It was a rather risky decision by Danone to associate its brand with the Soviet regime but the gamble proved to be a very successful one. Released in 1977, the ad campaign was a runaway success, even after questions had been raised about the veracity of ages of the people shown in the ads. The ad campaign played a decisive role in reversing the Danone Company’s declining sales. The company saw its sales skyrocket, a trend that continued for the next decade, producing enormous profits. “In Soviet Georgia” continues to be considered one of the best commercial campaigns ever produced. Advertising Age, a trade publication, named it as one of the 50 greatest commercials of all time in 1996, while in 2015 it ranked the ad 89th spot on its list of all-time best commercial campaigns.

Related story:

Longevity elixir – 1977 Dannon yogurt commercial shot in Georgia
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