From 1973 to 1978, the Dannon yogurt company ran a series of successful commercials featuring centenarians from “Soviet Georgia“. Here is a transcript of one of the TV commercials (with captions in brackets):
In Soviet Georgia, there are two curious things about the people [Tarkuk Lasuria, age 96]: a large part of their diet is yogurt [Temur Vanacha, age 105], and a large number of them live past 100. Of course, many things affect longevity [Kasteh Tanya, age 101], and we’re not saying Dannon yogurt will help you live longer. But Dannon is a natural, wholesome food that does supply many nutrients [Shadat Marcholia, age 103]. By the way, 89-year-old Bagrat Tabagua liked Dannon so much, he ate two cups. That pleased his mother very much.
When I first saw this ad, three things stood out to me as strange:
- Although I would occasionally get yogurt or kefir at convenience stores in Tbilisi, I don’t think I ever once had yogurt in a Georgian village. Maybe they eat it somewhere, but I don’t associate yogurt with Georgian cuisine. On the other hand, yogurt, in a variety of forms, appears frequently in Turkish cuisine.
- The men appear to be wearing some kind of traditional dress, but it’s not the kind of traditional dress I would expect to see in most of Georgia. In particular, several of them are wearing a kind of headwrap that I’ve only ever seen in old photographs and ethnographic depictions of Mingrelians, Adjarans, and Laz. In other words, their dress, if it’s actually authentic, has a distinctly lowland style, rather than the highland, mountaineer style I was expecting to see.
- Few of the names sound familiar to me. I’ve never heard of Tarkuk, Kasteh, and Shadat. Temur is a name of Turkic origin not often used in Georgia; those Georgians who do use it seem to be mostly from extra-Georgian ethnic groups (like Svans). Bagrat was the name of a powerful dynastic family in Georgia and Armenia, though I’ve never actually met someone with that name. The surnames also sound strange to me, not having the typical -shvili or -dze suffixes. The only mention of Marcholia I can find is of a director of a play at the Abkhaz State Drama Theater. Tabaghua, as far as I can tell, is a Mingrelian name; at least, it’s the name of a fifteen-year-old X Factor contestant from Zugdidi (will she live to become a centenarian?). In any case, none of these names are names I was expecting to hear.
These oddities can be explained, I suppose, by the fact that the commercials were actually shot in Abkhazia. I can’t tell the precise ethnic identities of the people featured: probably they are not Karts (i.e. regular Georgians), but they may be Mingrelians, Svans, or Abkhazians. I’m certain that the American executives involved in the production of the commercials had no idea that such distinctions even exist (the obituary of Dannon president Juan Metzger refers to the subject of the ads as “old Russians”).
Do they eat yogurt in Georgia? If so, is it limited to a particular region? There’s a Wikipedia article about a yogurt-like food called matsoni, but I’ve never heard of it anywhere else (as is often the case with this kind of thing, there’s an edit war over whether the dish is of Georgian or Armenian origin).
Regardless, the ads were a huge success, and they played a major role in thrusting yogurt into the mainstream of American food.