Following Tuesday’s news that Mikhail Gorbachev has died at age 91, social media revived a Pizza Hut commercial from 1998 with the former Soviet Union leader dining out at the American chain in Moscow. But was it really him or a lookalike?
Yes, that really was Gorbachev and his granddaughter Anastasia Virganskaya in the ad, which was filmed in December 1997 and aired internationally — but not in Russia — in January 1998.
As he told The New York Times in 1997, “If my name works for the benefit of consumers, to hell with it — I can risk it.” He was rumored to be paid $1 million for the ad, money he put into the Gorbachev Foundation.
In the commercial, Gorbachev and his granddaughter enter a Pizza Hut in Moscow’s Red Square. At a nearby table, a father and son argue over whether Gorbachev, who resigned in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, had helped or hurt Russia. The matriarch at the table points out that without Gorbachev they wouldn’t have Pizza Hut, and everyone smiles and rises to toast the former president, who nods at the acclaim.
The ad ends with the voiceover, “Sometimes, nothing brings people together better than a nice hot pizza from Pizza Hut, followed by the slogan “Good friends. Great pizza.”
As the Times noted in 1997, the reason the ad never aired in Russia was because Gorbachev was then “extremely unpopular” and “is blamed for allowing the Soviet Union to fall apart.” When he ran for the presidency in 1996, his first campaign for public office, he won less than 1 percent of the vote.
The pizza chain, Russia’s first foreign-owned restaurant, opened in 1990, thanks to Gorbachev’s “perestroika” (reconstruction) policies, which opened the Soviet Union to more Western influences.
“The ad would have become a footnote were it not for its long second life online, where it’s rediscovered every few years. There’s an undeniable voyeuristic frisson of seeing a man who once commanded a superpower hawking pizza,” wrote Foreign Policy in 2019. It’s made such lists as Thrillist’s “11 Most Bizarre Celebrity Endorsements Of All Time.”
Pizza Hut’s parent company, Yum! Brands, which also owns KFC, announced plans last month to formally exit Russia, leaving the franchise to be rebranded by its new owners.
On a related note, “Lost” and “The 100” producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach shared the story of the time he saw Gorbachev dining at Las Vegas’ Red Square restaurant, which he describes as “a restaurant-shaped parody of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Added Grillo-Marxuach, “The idea that the venerated-but-problematic leader of an empire that collapsed on his watch … would, in his dotage, enjoy meals in a living mockery of his own failures as a leader is a tragic, comical, satirical notion I would expect from a Terry Southern screenplay or a Preston Sturges film… or maybe a Rod Serling production.”
Watch the video at this top of this post.