Guerrilla Marketing: How Cubans Work Around a National Ban on Advertising

In Havana, advertisers worry about attracting ​too much​ attention.

A musician carries his double bass in downtown Havana. (Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters)

In an upscale beachfront neighborhood on the west side of Havana, a creative 20-something named Adrian is designing for Cuba’s capitalist tomorrow. Adrian’s firm offers a variety of standard advertising services: interior design, brand identity, video spots, business cards, and tarps and posters. The smell of fresh ink lingers in the air of his workspace, a converted garage where printers drone softly in the background, computer cables spider up the wall, and clients cycle through to pick up their materials. All of which would be unremarkable at any other start-up in the world, save for the fact that advertising is technically banned in Cuba.

Adrian, wearing a snug black T-shirt, admits that, when he opened his business four years earlier, he did so furtively, worrying that he would draw the attention of government inspectors. It is for this reason that his last name has been omitted, along with those of others working in the emergent “industry” here—one of the rare times that an advertising professional has declined an opportunity for self-promotion.

Business is good, and as he prepares to expand the workspace into other rooms in his home, some anxieties do linger, which he tries to allay with the confidence of having not aroused any suspicion to date. “I have to do it,” he shrugs. “The business can’t spend its whole life in a garage. It has to grow.”

Much the same might be said about Cuba’s economy. In the five decades that followed the 1959 revolution, more than 90 percent of the nation’s retail outlets were shuttered, as calculated by Joseph L. Scarpaci, the co-author of Marketing Without Advertising: Brand Preference and Consumer Choice in Cuba. In lieu of shopping, consumers were offered the libreta, a rationing booklet, to acquire basic food supplies and brandless household staples through state-run distribution centers. But because the libreta could not cover all needs—despite the communist party line—“over time, it came to symbolize not only a culture of equality but also one of scarcity and inefficiency,” writes Julia E. Sweig, a senior research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

After assuming the presidency in 2008, Raul Castro initiated a series of economic reforms in an attempt to slim down the public sector, liberalize the sale of homes and cars, and spur entrepreneurship in sundry fields, from shoe repair to souvenirs to pizza stands. Notably—from the perspective of consumer activity and tourism—these efforts spawned a bump in casas particulares, or bed-and-breakfast lodging, and paladares, or in-home restaurants.

“But they don’t advertise,” says Kirby Jones, the president of Alamar Associates, a U.S.-based consulting firm that specializes in Cuban trade. “You have the service industry—particularly barbers, seamstresses, tutors, plumbers, construction people—all who are coming out of the closet and the woodwork to do their own business. They compete against each other. But they don’t advertise.”

Now, during Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Cuba—the first by an American president in nearly a century—there is hope on the island for further diplomatic reforms, including an end to the U.S. embargo. It is unclear whether the government would even consider easing the restrictions on advertising amid the broader normalization of U.S. relations. Some experts think that’s unlikely. But Cubans themselves speak hopefully of a moment of change that may well be at hand, but it is one that leaves thousands of small businesses in the communist nation facing an enduring capitalist challenge: how exactly to get the word out.

“You never know what is sold in our country, in Havana, just a few blocks away from where you live,” gripes one Cuban I talked to, the owner of a small bakery. Yarmila, a veteran freelance designer I spoke to, concurs: “Out in the world, the traditional media doesn’t work,” she says, referring to a common complaint among the world’s advertisers that there’s too much clutter and not enough credibility for messages delivered via TV or billboard. “And here, we don’t have traditional media.”

The statement that there is no advertising allowed in Cuba is at once technically apt, if meaningfully imprecise. Certainly, there is no advertising to be found on billboards—only propagandistic edicts like “Socialism or Death!” as appearing on one roadside sign on the highway from Jose Marti airport to Havana. There is no advertising on television, either, save for the occasional government-sponsored public service announcement that might bookend—but would never interrupt—a program. Historically, too, there has been no advertising in newspapers and only one FM station, Radio Taino, reportedly hosts promotional spots.

A Havana storefront (Michael Serazio)

“According to the constitution, the media cannot be used against the system, and advertising is capitalism, which goes against the system,” explains Yoan Karell Acosta Gonzalez, a professor at the University of Havana. He pulls a booklet out of a backpack and flips to Article 53, which protects freedom of speech and the press “within the objectives of socialist society.”

But does that include advertising? Gonzalez thinks about it for a moment, and then clarifies, “The constitution doesn’t say you cannot promote products exactly. It says you cannot use the media to promote capitalism.”

If the distinction seems fuzzy, even contradictory, consider the following: Those opening new bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants by converting extra rooms inside their homes are not technically considered  entrepreneurs, but rather “self-employed,” or cuentapropismo, in the preferred nomenclature of the state. Such a categorization apparently accommodates personal initiative while limiting the acquisition of private property used for purely profit-oriented ends, as well as any potential inequality derived from that.

“[Government leaders] don’t see this as a transition to capitalism. They see this as a temporary aberration in the transition to a more perfect socialism,” says Scarpaci. “Because [‘transition’] means that there’s a weakness; that there’s a crack in the system and that capitalism will come in. So, they really see themselves as sort of, David and Goliath, gradually dipping their big toe into the market, into the global waters of consumption. And they’re afraid of it.”

* * *

What one discovers in Cuba, then, is a complex, subtle ecology of commercialism, and campaigns that strategize in a way that Che Guevara himself might admire. There is a favored phrase in Cuban Spanish—resolver—that, when translated roughly means “to get by” and evokes a particular national spirit of survival and working around the rules. It is, as one advertiser told me, “more than an expression—it’s a way of life in Cuba.” Resolver certainly seems to be the de facto motto of her profession—one that operates at the edges of legality and inventiveness.

Longtime observers who frequently return to Cuba might note an uptick in small signage dotting the urban landscape, particularly the Lite-Brite-style colored displays that hang from retailers’ façades. Even this space, however, is regulated and fiercely circumscribed so as to maintain promotional modesty.

On a busy recent Monday morning, I accompany a local designer to visit her friend’s printing business. She points out his storefront windows; although they are covered in colorful patterns and list his offerings, the company logo itself takes up but a fraction of a single panel. That is deliberate, she explains. In the event that a nosy inspector stops by to carp, the proprietor can technically claim his “sign” is small enough.

Such limitations arrive not only in the form of state interference, but equally a failure of imagination among new clients. Advertisers in Cuba face the challenge of convincing business owners of the existence, much less the necessity, of their practice.

Arnulfo, a graphic designer, recalled one particularly intransigent music-label client with an old-fashioned, illegible logo that he resisted updating: “I made a joke to convince him: If you go to a doctor and he says you need a heart transplant, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want to change. I was born with this heart.’” Adrian reports much the same frustration with a client who’d had a restaurant since the 1990s but, until three years ago, hadn’t even hung a sign outside her establishment. The appearance of a competitor around the block—and apparently the subsequent loss of business—forced her hand.

Arguably, the most common channel for advertising in Cuba is the paquete semanal, a USB-drive-based distribution system of pirated content: soap operas, YouTube clips, music videos, documentaries, and Hollywood blockbusters. It has been called the “offline Internet” of Cuba, and has arisen from a widespread absence of Internet access. (A few public Wi-Fi spots have popped up in the last year, but their service has usually been haltingly slow.)

Various storefronts offer weekly doses of pop culture downloaded by hand through the paquete. Even the few magazines debuting in Cuba of late, such as Vistar, that have web addresses (and, in one recent issue, advertising for Burberry) still find that their content circulates more consistently through paquete PDF than online interface. At this point, having a URL seems to be more of a status symbol than a means of distributing information.

Abiding by the habit of state-television PSAs, the commercial “break” on the paquete usually arrives at the end of the show, when restaurants, photographers, and beauty salons insert their messages. One small-business owner shudders at the alternative: “It would be very depressing and annoying to be interrupted every 15 minutes with an advertisement.”

Back at his office, Adrian demonstrates an example spot that he assembled for a bakery at the end of a montage of slapstick YouTube clips. The ad is mostly a series of cascading still images of pastries and cakes, soundtracked to uptempo techno beat, with the business’s name, address, and phone number capping off the sequence.

These commercials’ aesthetic might seem “very primitive” to cynical, paternalistic American eyes, as Yarmila, the veteran freelance designer I spoke to admits, “but we are learning the whole history of 100 years of advertising in a few years’ time.” It is a rhetorical and aesthetic style evocative of the origins of American consumerism—rational and utilitarian rather than status-driven. As Scarpaci and Emilio Morales write, “The values- and lifestyle-based marketing eras have not materialized”—yet. This is less a slight against the sophistication of Cuban consumers than a practical acknowledgement of their limited buying power. “Because advertising is so limited in Cuba, social class through branding doesn't exist in the same way,” explains Arnulfo. “It will happen, though.”

Part of that learning curve is, quite obviously, dictated by the rules of the road. When a branding specialist I spoke to once approached the government agency that oversees billboards about the possibility of paying to use one for his business, their response was unequivocal: “Are you crazy?” He says he was laughed out of the office. Hence, the resolver instinct to plaster, say, a giant hotel sign across the entirety of a car’s back window, as was spotted whizzing by on one recent afternoon.

For many on the island, though, word-of-mouth advertising still assures the most reliable source of customers: “It is social networking in real life, in the analog life,” as Yarmila puts it. U.S. companies have increasingly initiated buzz campaigns as part of a wider shift to guerrilla marketing strategies. By contrast, the Cuban equivalent is much simpler: “In the U.S., viral is qualitative. It’s Likert scale: very good, good, fair, poor, crappy,” Scarpaci explains. “[In Cuba] scarcity is such a way of life that it’s, ‘Yes, they have it at that store,’ or “Yes, so-and-so will have it on the black market,’ or ‘No, they don’t.’”

Given such scarcity, both the purveyors of goods and those who promote them are often forced to make do with whatever materials and ingredients can be found. For that reason, one stylish rooftop paladar opts to write out its (adaptable) daily offerings rather than have printed menus on hand in advance. When I visited the owner for a chat about her advertising strategies, I happened upon a “media buy” in progress: A mustachioed engineer who used to fly planes was there touting ad space on a new map he created of the neighborhood’s many bars and restaurants; for a fee, he’d include a location and picture of her joint, too. This is, of course, standard tourist detritus everywhere else in the world—the kind of advertorial brochure that gets stuffed into concierge racks in hotel lobbies. In Cuba, however, this idea is a radical innovation. When I asked for his name, he gave me a fake one and a wink.

* * *

Americans tend to look upon Cuba as a time capsule—a place frozen and off-limits to them, an island sheltered from the present in all kinds of political, economic, and technological ways. This manifests itself in tourists fetishizing the old cars that prowl the Malecón; the beautiful-but-crumbling architectural hodgepodge of neoclassical, Art Deco, and Soviet styles; the salsa music that spills out of doorways and plazas and makeshift stages; and, yes, perhaps, the absence of advertising in all its familiar forms.

Cuban advertisers get that stereotype. As Adrian explains, he designs logos and flyers differently for a tourist-oriented client than ones courting locals: The former demands colorful, old-fashioned aesthetics, the latter a more modern motif. “We always have to give that identity to the tourists of the Cuban people: the sun, that we’re funny, the pachanga,” he says, swiveling his hips in his desk chair to an imagined merengue beat. But try selling that vintage image to natives? He shakes his head. “We don’t like it. We need to make the modern style for Cubans,” he says: Sober colors. Clean minimalism. White space.

And what if, say, Havana did get its own Times Square one day—a canyon of public space surrounded by big bright billboards that so symbolizes the commercial excess that Cuba has kept at bay for half a century?

Over mojitos, I ask this of one Cuban who—inspired by Yelp—pioneered an offline cellphone app that lists hundreds of businesses around the country. She stirs her drink and smiles thinking about the possibility. “It would be fan-fucking-tastic.”

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