BOB GARFIELD: President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba this week brought with it the tantalizing prospect of a new era for Cuba’s economy. The restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba comes as economic reforms from the Castro government are already underway. Under new rules, last year the Cuban government issued nearly a half million small business licenses. As American tourists flood Cuba, Cubans are opening casas particulares (bed-and-breakfasts) and paladares (in-home restaurants) in droves. But they don’t advertise, not even with storefront signage.
Michael Serazio is author of Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing. He recently wrote about Cuba’s ban on advertising for The Atlantic. Michael, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL SERAZIO: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s the legal basis for an advertising-less Cuba?
MICHAEL SERAZIO: Murky. As it was explained to me by a media professor at the University of Havana, the Constitution says that media cannot be used against the system. If you look at Article 53 of the Constitution, he pointed out that the Constitution protects freedom of speech and the press to, quote, “within the objectives of socialist society.” The Constitution does not say that you can't promote products exactly, but it seems to be pretty clear that you cannot use the media to promote capitalism. So there's a fuzzy distinction there.
BOB GARFIELD: So what does it look like on the ground? It must take a moment before it dawns on you that there's something wrong with this picture, namely the lack of ubiquitous signage.
MICHAEL SERAZIO: It does indeed, and I think that the introduction to that is the road from the airport into Havana, which is a space that in any kind of other capitalist economy would be just flooded with billboard signs.
And, of course, in Cuba there's a ban on commercial advertising on billboards, so what you see is an abundance of state propaganda messages, Socialism or Death, various homages to Che and Fidel, a number of public service public health type campaign messages but the utter lack of any sort of branding or commercial advertising messages in those spaces. There’s similarly no advertising to be found on state television and the newspaper.
BOB GARFIELD: There is a burgeoning service economy, in-home restaurants and so forth, and there isn’t really a means, I gather, for these small businesses to tell even neighbors that they’re there.
MICHAEL SERAZIO: That’s correct. In-store advertising or storefront advertising is one of the most important ways of trying to get the message out and it’s simultaneously one of the most circumscribed ways of getting the message out Cuba. To give you an example of this, I tagged along with a contact to her friend’s printing business, and the entirety of the storefront was covered in colorful pictures, listed the store offerings but the sign itself was a mere fraction of the entire storefront. And, as she explained to me that was a kind of formality should some nosy government inspector ever come around and bother the proprietor about having too much advertising on his storefront, he could point to the fact that the name of the company itself was very small and, therefore, that was the only advertising sign for the business.
BOB GARFIELD: Anyone go to jail for putting up a sign on their storefront?
MICHAEL SERAZIO: The sense that I got was no, fined perhaps but my sense is that the sort of repression that the state uses as a tool is much more inclined toward political dissidents, as opposed to commercial aspirants.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, your specialty is guerrilla marketing, which exists primarily because traditional channels of advertising are too cluttered, too expensive. But in Cuba, because there are no mass channels of advertising, it's a way to get your message out without being in violation of the Constitution. Give me an idea of what people do to do to deal with the reality of the situation on the ground.
MICHAEL SERAZIO: One of the biggest ways that advertising circulates in Cuba is through something called Paquete Semanal, which is basically a distribution system of pirated pop-culture content. Folks will go to their neighborhood distributor, their neighborhood storefront and they'll bring a, a USB drive or a hard drive and they’ll download that week’s worth of Hollywood movies, American and British TV shows, YouTube clips. And some video advertising will be affixed to the end of that content. This is really only way, as best as I could tell, that video advertising exists in Cuba.
Besides the Paquete, certainly word of mouth is the main way that advertising circulates in Cuba but, of course, it's not deliberately strategized in those ways that we’re hearing about nowadays in the US. When I mentioned to some of the folks in Cuba that you might actually pay folks to, to buzz about products or to stir up viral popularity for products, this was baffling to them.
BOB GARFIELD: There's something to be said for not being awash in advertising messages. In fact, you know, apart from Article 53 of the Constitution, is there anything about the Cuban character that will resist what is probably the inevitable ubiquity of logos and signage and commercials and everything that comes with a consumer society? Can we be sure that they’re going to dive headlong into consumer culture?
MICHAEL SERAZIO: No, we can’t be sure of that. The folks that I spoke with were desirous of the possibilities of the floodgates opening in those ways, but even in some of those sort of conversational asides that I had with folks it suggested that resistance certainly could be possible. Talking with a business owner who runs a bakery there, he was extremely excited about the possibility of trying to get the message out about his business but when I spoke with him about the tradition in America, say, of having an advertisement interrupt a show every 10 minutes or so, he was mortified at that possibility. So there certainly could be cultural trepidation on the part of the Cuban community.
And I would add too, there certainly could be trepidation from the perspective of tourists. Rightly or wrongly, certainly American tourists view Cuba as a kind of preserve from the past, things like the old cars, the old buildings, the kind of lifestyle that is represented there. But I think it's also partly due to the fact that there is not advertising suffocating you as you walk through the public spaces there. And if, indeed, the floodgates are opened that will change Cuba for Cubans and that will certainly change, in many ways, what tantalizes the foreign tourists.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL SERAZIO: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Serazio is assistant professor of communications at Boston College. He wrote about Cuba’s ban on advertising for The Atlantic.