Letter from Prague

When I walk around the streets of Prague, especially the area around Wenceslas Square and close to the radio building, one of the most noticeable things is the advertising. It is very much one of the aspects of the city that has done most to alter its general appearance since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

It's very difficult now to find a space on a wall or a bus or a tram that hasn't been covered by some for of advertising. I remember back in the early 1990s there was a huge controversy about the advertising of tobacco on trams and buses. Over about a period of a year from 1991 to 92, the traditional cream and red colour of the Prague trams were painted over and replaced with, say, the Malboro or the Camel colour scheme. For a while these new colours were quite novel - a welcome, rebellious change from the tried and trusted.

One day, though, some young, eager, well-meaning newly elected deputy turned up at parliament and asked 'Shouldn't we have some sort of the law banning the advertising of cigarettes on the side's of trams and buses?' The other deputies, most of whom were huddled around ashtrays in the foyers of parliament, just coughed in bewilderment.

The tobacco giants were having a field day. Every street corner and street car offered prime advertising space. Malboro Man and Joe Camel had never had it so good, starring as they were in newspapers and weekly magazines on a very regular basis. Not only had the multinationals the resources to offer more money than the competition for advertising, they even went and bought up their main potential rival - the Czech company Tabak - meaning of course, that they didn't really have any competition.

Old lungbusters such as Petra and Sparta and the infamous filter-free Start brands began to offer 'lighter' varieties in an attempt to convince the Czech public that there was such as thing as a 'safer' cigarette. This also offered the wonderful potential for new colour schemes to adorn the side walls of department stores and petrol stations. Regular cough-and-splutter Sparta were - and still are - red and white, whereas friendly little Sparta light were blue and white.

The Multinationals weren't stupid enough to fool themselves that those halcyon days of Malboro Man and Joe Camel could continue forever. The Czech Republic was an emerging democracy and that bright spark at the parliament who questioned an over-sized cigarette packet doubling up as a tram would surely get his day.

Moving on eight or nine years and the legislation regarding the advertising and sale of tobacco is much, much tighter - and although not quite on a par yet with restrictions in North America and Western Europe, it's getting there. The trams and buses were banned from displaying tobacco advertising a number of years back, meaning that instead of traveling to work in a Malboro box on wheels, I now go by the M & M tram, complete with yellow, blue and red dots to obscure my view onto the street.

They've adapted, and will continue to adapt. In fact, if there is any one trade that continues to thrive in spite of restrictions or even out-right bans on its advertising, then it would have to be tobacco. Actually, I guess that the sex trade would be number one but surely the trusty old fag would be a close second. Firstly, it's a drug. And secondly, the marketing departments of the companies producing it are very, very clever.

I remember back in Britain during the eighties when the laws were tightened on tobacco billboards. They were still allowed to advertise them, but the brand name could not be shown. Beats me why they didn't just ban it altogether, but what happened was remarkable. A cigarette called Silk Cut became within a few years the most popular in the country. This was for the simple reason that a piece of silk slashed to reveal a dark-blue material beneath it, made an attractive advertising symbol and was immediately synonymous with the brand.

The multinationals here are still in the throws of targeting the 18-30s with their techno parties and their complimentary packets. Even with the EU lurking over their shoulders, Malboro Man and Joe probably have nothing to fear.