Q&A: Pussy Riot on Cannes, Cause Marketing and What the American Media Gets Wrong About Russia

Says marketers should 'go deeper' with activism

Marian Brannelly

CANNES, France—Banners stating “Patriarchy is Boring” and “No Riot No Pussy” were posted on the Lumiere stage at the Palais theater for Pussy Riot’s colorful Cannes Lions festival session Thursday afternoon. The feminist punk rock group took the stage as part of Grey’s annual Legends of Music Seminar.

“There’s so much happening in our world that needs action,” Per Pedersen, global creative chairman of Grey Group, told Adweek of the decision to bring Pussy Riot to Cannes. “I know our role as creative people, and also our clients’ role, is to [bring about] change. It’s clear there’s an appetite to be engaged. People are looking to be engaged. Brands are looking to be engaged.”

Pedersen continued: “For a couple of years I’ve followed Pussy Riot because I like their ways of doing stuff. These are the guys that have the expertise in going all the way with stuff. It might not be in the comfort zone of most brands but it’s definitely the masterclass of activism.”

Adweek caught up with Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and her husband, fellow artist Pyotr Verzilov, after the session to find out what they want to say to brand marketers and what the American media gets wrong about Russia.

Adweek: During the session there was a discussion of Pussy Riot as a brand. Can you tell us a bit more about that? 
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: I think it was more like joke about brand because we don’t really refer to Pussy Riot as a brand.

On stage there was a reference to the fame in terms of the Pussy Riot brand, how it’s like Sputnik, one of the most famous brands to come out of Russia. Why do you think that is?
Pyotr Verzilov: A lot of people in the West were sort of amazed by this clash between Western values and Putin’s desire to take the country in a very different [direction] to authoritarian roots. This clash, obviously, and the resistance to it inspired a lot of people. That’s how it sort of received a lot of energy that made Pussy Riot into this globally inspiring thing.

More and more brands have had activism in their marketing messages. What do you think of that? Do you have any advice for brand marketers?
Verzilov: A lot of people on the left tend to criticize that. I think it’s good actually. It’s a good thing. For example, in Russia you can see that protest is becoming more fashionable and this is very good for politicization because fashionable things attract a lot of attention, and it can be shallow or deep or productive or unproductive, but still it’s more attention and getting involved and definitely this leads to more results.

My wish would be for brands to be more serious with that because protest is a powerful tool. If you need to sell something while you think people are getting effectively involved in that, that might be a good way of doing stuff. You can achieve several goals with that. But they shouldn’t do it in a shallow way. They should use it in this full scale power that protest has.

Tolokonnikova: Yeah I think just go deeper, make better analysis of the situation. Don’t just use aesthetics. You know, this Kendall Jenner thing that Pepsi did was really terrible. But if you don’t just go to Africa trying to be just another wealthy white person who is trying to solve world problems. If you really try to understand how to deal with structural inequality that’s great but don’t use street cred that was achieved by somebody else by going to prison—some people have been killed. It’s not an easy path. It’s always sad to see how people use [activism] in a light way so if you take it seriously go for it.

Russia has become a much bigger part of the American media narrative in the last year or so.
Verzilov: I think Russia is the most popular country on Earth now in the United States, surprisingly.

Is there anything about Russia that you’ve read in American media that has surprised you?
Verzilov: I think the whole concept that Putin is running the United States and choosing the next president and controlling and choosing the next FBI director—I really love the moment—Putin plays in this night hockey league where he just gets with a bunch of officials and plays hockey at night—and once he was leaving the game and this reporter from one of the American networks came up to him and she was like, ‘Mr. Putin, Mr. Putin what’s do you think of the firing of the director Comey?’ and Putin’s like, ‘Oh no, I didn’t have anything to do with that.’ He’s immediately saying like, ‘Even I didn’t fire director Comey, c’mon.’ So even he’s like a little bit mocking of American media that all the time goes to talk about all the time how endlessly powerful he is in running American politics which obviously isn’t fact.

Tolokonnikova: I also think it’s just falling into Cold War propaganda. It’s comfortable for Americans and Russians, for both sides, but not really for the people but mostly for the people who are elites to create this about each other and avoiding talking about real issues.

Another thing about covering all this Russia thing in American news, I feel uncomfortable all the time when they are mixing Putin, Putin’s government and Russia and Russians. Everybody, even Bernie Sanders he’s like, ‘Yeah Trump and the Russians,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh I’m a Russian too. Don’t equate me with those assholes.’ They aren’t the only people who represent Russia. We do too. So just specify, ‘Trump and Putin,’  ‘Trump and Putin’s government,’  ‘Trump and Putin’s oligarchs,’ not ‘Russians.’

What did you guys want to say to all of these marketers from all over the world?
Tolokonnikova: It is never too—I’m starting to lose my words because I’m so fucking jet lagged right now and I can’t say anything at this point. It’s not what I wanted to say to all those people and I guess I said something, right? And it was good?

Verzilov: The presentation consisted of some artistic points that were important for Pussy Riot. The ending action was done to sort of show that it takes sometimes very little or sometimes very much to protest and you just have to choose the means that you think are effective that can be useful for you.