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‘Brush your teeth, go to work, and in the evening you take an HIV test’ Russia's Health Ministry has been paying millions of dollars to a group of curiously connected former TV marketers to create PSAs

Meduza
Testing for HIV at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok as part of the “Expedition” program. On the right, Udmurtia head Alexander Brechalov. September 12, 2018.
Testing for HIV at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok as part of the “Expedition” program. On the right, Udmurtia head Alexander Brechalov. September 12, 2018.
Egor Aleev / TASS

In 2018, Russia’s Health Ministry spent almost 100 million rubles ($1.5 million) to promote its HIV-prevention program, but the effectiveness of these ads remains unclear

In early November, Russia’s Health Ministry wrapped up its “HIV Test: Expedition” program, where two minibuses visited 120 cities in 36 different regions, from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad. According to organizers, in six months the ministry was able to test more than 44,000 people for the deadly immunodeficiency virus, though officials haven’t revealed the number of positive results.

Russia’s federal government spent nearly $1.5 million on the project, and almost all that money went to advertising. The GAZ Group automotive company supplied the minibuses, and staff at local AIDS-centers (state facilities set up to fight the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases) processed the tests on their own time, using their own resources. The Health Ministry’s contribution was primarily the promotion of the “Expedition” program.

According to state procurement contracts, the Health Ministry paid at least six promoters to hand out flyers in each region, and at least one blogger to write no fewer than three posts about the program. A national newspaper was also contracted to feature advertisements about each regional stop in the “Expedition” program, and a national television network (it turned out to be the tabloid channel Ren-TV) was hired to air video segments about these events. The ministry allocated additional money for a closing ceremony and a commemorative calendar, as well as posts on social media about HIV infection (at least 30 each week) and events promoting the prevention of HIV and viral hepatitis, to be held at a “class-A business center.” The ministry also produced dozens of YouTube videos about the “Expedition” program — 57 in all — and shared them on its official channel. As of November 20, these videos had just 2,711 views.

In 2018, the Health Ministry spent 91.7 million rubles ($1.4 million) on HIV prevention promotions, almost all of which went to advertising the “Expedition” campaign. The procurement contract was awarded to the “VNG” Communication Group, which beat out the only other bidder: the Komsomolskaya Pravda publishing house. For years, this newspaper has partnered with VNG to promote Health Ministry projects, and it was also the print media outlet subcontracted to carry ads about the “Expedition” project.

The VNG Communication Group has been getting money from the Health Ministry for years to produce public service announcements. All in all, the firm has received more than 1.5 billion rubles ($22.8 million).

VNG was founded in November 2010. Three months later, it won its first big contract with the Health Ministry: almost 100 million rubles to promote a mass blood drive. The company then started winning procurement deals regularly.

In 2011, VNG released a series of ads for the Health Ministry, and one of these PSAs featured a hip, new gadget called “SPIDometr” that could supposedly detect the presence of HIV in people at a distance. (In Russian, “SPID” is the initialism for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.) People interested in ordering the device were directed to the “I Want a SPIDometr” website, where they were asked to enter their email addresses. Anyone who signed up then received a message from the Health Ministry, informing them that SPIDometr was made up, and the most reliable way to check for HIV is to get a blood test.

VNG got 38.8 million rubles (about $1.4 million, at the time) to carry out this stunt, but sources familiar with the promotion told Meduza that it’s hard to measure its effectiveness. Tellingly, the marketers behind the ad were apparently unaware that the word “speedometer” already exists in English (and means something rather different). Today, the “I Want a SPIDometr” website redirects visitors to the “Volcano” online casino.

TheSPIDometr

The Health Ministry’s HIV prevention spending has run into corruption issues, as well. The Attorney General’s Office found that the agency awarded a procurement contract in August 2011 to the company “2SHARP” for 21.5 million rubles ($774,000, at the time), despite a competing bid to perform the same promotional services for almost three times less money. 2SHARP won several other government contracts, as well, and prosecutors later discovered that the company’s CEO and co-founder graduated from the same management academy and worked at the same media outlet as Sofia Malyavina, then the Health Ministry’s advertising budget supervisor.

Malyavina refused to comment on the allegations, but a 2SHARP spokesman said the corruption charges were unfounded, telling reporters, “We made more than 20 excellent videos for the Health Ministry’s campaign, and this is the thanks we get. There’s nothing criminal about our operation. We just wanted to do something for the good of our country.” The results of the Federal Investigative Committee’s preliminary inquiry were never published, but 2SHARP never bid on another Health Ministry contract.

With 2SHARP out of the picture, the Health Ministry has turned increasingly to the VNG Communication Group. Based on Meduza’s calculations, the ministry has spent more than 2.6 billion rubles ($39.5 million) in the past seven years on PSAs — 1.1 billion rubles of which have been awarded to VNG. No other advertising company working with the Health Ministry has enjoyed such success. For example, the “Tainiy Sovetnik Communication Group,” founded by State Duma deputy Leonid Levin, has won contracts worth 191.2 million rubles ($2.9 million), and the ministry has awarded deals worth roughly 98.4 million rubles ($1.5 million) to Igor Ashmanov’s company, “Novye Tekhnologii.”

On its website, included in its “Portfolio” section, VNG lists several more Health Ministry projects (for example, the “Breathe Freely” anti-smoking promotion) that were awarded to the firms “Smart-NS” and “TV-Service,” which is the Muz-TV station’s legal entity. If you include these contracts in VNG’s total, the company was hired to manage projects worth more than 1.6 billion rubles ($24.3 million) — roughly two-thirds of the Health Ministry’s entire PSA budget for the past seven years.

For the past three years, the Health Ministry has repeatedly hired VNG to promote efforts to test Russians for HIV. Last year, the firm organized an outreach campaign with Russian Railways: “express tests” available to passengers on long-distance trains and visitors to train stations in 24 different regions across the country. “We’ve been saying through the mass media that this is normal,” VNG CEO Alexandra Veselova told a local radio station in Blagoveshchensk. (She refused to speak to Meduza.) “You get up in the morning, brush your teeth, go to work, in the evening you take an HIV test, you go home, and everything’s good. If, God forbid, everything isn’t good, then [at least] you took the HIV test, and you’ll be okay.”

Earlier this year, VNG also won a contract to create PSAs promoting “healthy lifestyle priorities.” For 114.7 million rubles ($1.8 million), the company was hired to design and distribute a series of advertisements featuring the slogan: “Health Ministry approved.” The promos included various questionable claims, such as information that smokers spend four hours a day on cigarette breaks, warnings that all sexual relations can lead to conception (a remarkable feat for those engaged in oral and anal sex), tips about the magical power of breakfast, and claims unsupported by science that abortion raises the risk of breast cancer.

VNG was founded by former Muz-TV employees who have ties to Health Ministry officials and members of Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova’s staff.

Procurement contracts awarded to “TV-Service” aren’t VNG’s only connection to Muz-TV. The company was founded by three former employees from the television channel: Alexandra Veselova, VNG’s current CEO and Muz-TV’s former commercial director, and Marina Nichiporuk and Irina Golutvo, who worked as Veselova’s deputies at Muz-TV.

“Our team”
“Our team”
VNG Communication Group

Irina Golutvo told Meduza that VNG adheres closely to the law when bidding on government procurement contracts, “within the framework of which the winner is the participant who offers the best conditions,” she said, adding, “Some bids we win, and others we lose.”

VNG has indirect ties to the Health Ministry, as well. In the early 2010s, Golutvo’s sister Anna worked as an adviser in Health Ministry's communications department (the same office that supervises the agency’s promotional campaigns), and the department itself was headed by Artem Korotkov, Muz-TV’s former PR director.

“As for working at Muz-TV, almost all our former colleagues are now either in managerial positions at major companies, or they’ve organized their own businesses and are developing them successfully,” Irina Golutvo told Meduza. “Generally speaking, the markets for television, ads, and PR are pretty small, so everybody knows each other.”

Health Ministry officials refused to answer Meduza’s questions.

Both Artem Korotkov and Sofia Malyavina (the advertising budget supervisor at the Health Ministry suspected of showing favoritism to 2SHARP) are part of Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova’s PR team, and both have migrated to new jobs, each time she moves within the government. When Golikova left the Health Ministry in 2012 and became a presidential adviser on issues related to the social and economic development of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Korotkov and Malyavina also started working with these countries through the presidential administration. (Incidentally, after Korotkov left the Health Ministry, his wife Elena was hired as the communications department’s deputy director.) When Golikova became chairperson of Russia’s Accounts Chamber a year later, Korotkov became her deputy.

In May 2018, Golikova was appointed deputy prime minister for social policy, labor, health, and pension provision. Afterwards, Korotkov took over as the spokesman for Russia’s Pension Fund, and Sofia Malyavina joined Golikova’s team as an adviser. Golikova’s current spokeswomen is Ekaterina Nazarova, another former Muz-TV PR manager and ex-member of the Health Ministry’s communications department.

Story by Ivan Golunov, translation by Kevin Rothrock