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Germany's Lustfully Funny Politics

Have Germans shed their reputation for not having any humour in this year’s elections?

September 19, 2002

Have Germans shed their reputation for not having any humour in this year's elections?

I first arrived in Germany a little over a month ago. My destination was Munich, the capital of the conservative Bavarian region. The majority Catholic state is an enigma even to many Germans — who find the Bavarian culture and accent somewhat strange, to say the least.

The campaign ads for the 2002 elections in Munich mostly center on Edmund Stoiber — the state’s premier — and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate for Chancellor.

Although Mr. Stoiber is a member of Bavaria’s unique Christian Social Union (CSU), the CSU and CDU merge into one entity for major events — like national elections.

Needless to say, the CDU tends to be conservative, so the ads in Munich generally display nothing more daring than a big grinning Edmund Stoiber.

So, imagine my surprise upon arriving in Berlin. In the underground metro system, I was greeted by topless women in ads for the Green Party! At first, I could not believe it. I thought it was a parody — or maybe even a prank by an opposing party.

But three ads later, I realized it was true. “It’s incredible here! The Germans have naked people everywhere for everything,” a French acquaintance remarked as we walked by another nude political ad.

“That’s a bit much coming from a French person,” I said. “After all, you’ve got topless women on posters all over the city."

“I’m not French,” she clarified. “I’m French-Canadian."

Needless to say, the various political parties in Germany, whether they fall on the conservative or the liberal end of the spectrum, are tucking a little humor into their advertising campaigns for the 2002 elections.

The topless ad from the green party is actually a double entendre.

It allows the Greens to capitalize on how they helped push through a law allowing homosexual marriages while at the same time making a reference to a famous 16th century painting, Gabrielle d’Estrées and Her Sister.

“It’s just the Green way of doing politics, I would say,” says a Green Party spokesperson. As the party of the young and educated, the Greens have always been more likely to use humor and irony in their campaigns.

But not all the parties have as much freedom to advertise as the Greens. “We cater to a very broad group of people,” explains a more conservative CDU spokesperson.

“The Green party targets people who can appreciate that kind of humor — a humor that our voters would not find funny.”

Most of the humor in this campaign is directed at younger voters. As in most every country in the world, Germany’s youth tend to be relatively apathetic voters.

There are currently around 8 million Germans under the age of 26 — many of them first-time voters — and the parties are trying their best to grasp that large segment of the vote.

The Greens — along with the left-of-center Social Democratic Party (SPD) — are probably winning on this front. Their ads tend to be more colorful and entertaining than those of the other political parties.

On one end of Germany's sexy elections are the Green Party's campaign posters featuring topless women. On the other side, there is the cult of personality.

For Germany's 2002 elections, the various parties are trying to get voters to "smile" about their star players — or if not, at least "laugh" at their opponents.

Along these lines, the Greens have an ad campaign that focuses only on current Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer — an extremely popular candidate among Germans of all political denominations.

“Whoever wants Joschka, will vote for the Greens,” one ad says. Another ad plays on the German word for foreign minister, Aussen, which means ‘outer’: "Outer Minister, Inner Green" it proclaims. Joschka Fischer's smiling face embodies the campaign.

Mr. Schröder's party, the SPD, is also trying its hand at humor. They have a poster that shows the globe all colored in the blue-and-white colors of Bavaria. It says ‘Stoiber’s world,’ meaning that for Mr. Stoiber, the world all looks like Bavaria.

Joschka Fischer posters — or posters making fun of Edmund Stoiber — are both quite popular among German voters.

While the CDU needs to maintain a family-friendly advertising campaign, they do try to reign in the younger voters. The CDU has an ad running in German cinemas called ‘Change’ which shows people changing partners, apartments and even positions in bed.

The final segment shows someone reaching into his Volkswagen Beetle to change the picture frame with Mr. Schröder’s picture to — yes, you guessed it — a photo of Mr. Stoiber.

Since people who go to the cinema tend to be younger, the CDU can allow itself a bit more margin for laughs.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) — which usually tallies around 8% of the popular vote — has found itself subject to a different kind of campaign humor. Its campaign scheme is centered on the party's goal of winning 18% of the vote.

Even though nobody really understands where that rather arbitrary — and optimistic — target came from, the number “18” very prominently adorns the FDP’s election posters.

Opponents of the FDP quickly grasped the opportunity to turn the campaign into a joke — by systematically adding a “.” to a large number of the posters that had been put up in Berlin.

Thus, the posters now proclaim a target of 1.8% — which would ensure that the FDP is not represented in the next Bundestag.

Certainly, the question arises, how much humor is too much? The parties insist they are not doing anything unacceptable to most Germans — even though Germans are not known for their sense of humor.

In fact, the Green Party's daring posters and e-cards are extremely popular — and across all segments of society.

But while a bit of humor is nice, shouldn't there be a limit? The CDU seems to think so — and even uses this as a selling point for its candidate. With all the economic problems plaguing Germany, Edmund Stoiber comes off as a serious man for serious times.

But it could be that this dead-serious attitude of politicians is exactly what turns people away from voting. Perhaps this is why the Green Party is literally trying to give the voting process a little more "sex appeal."

And although there is no competition between the parties to have the funniest ad, humor does seem to be the mark of Germany's elections this year — from the Green Party to the SPD. On Sunday, it remains to be seen who gets the last laugh.