For the past six weeks, voters in Germany have been inundated by campaign posters ahead of Sunday’s national election.
Passers-by walking down the street in just about every German city, town or village get a detailed look at who is running in their district and a condensed version of their campaign messages.
Green Party posters warn Germans to “either end coal or end climate.” Another message: “Healthy food doesn’t come from nature that’s sick.”
The anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany placards are even blunter.
“Burkas? We prefer bikinis,” reads one slogan superimposed on the backsides of a couple of white women at the beach.
Another poster says: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves,” superimposed on a pregnant white woman lying on the grass.
The vertical placards, which are similar in size regardless of the candidate or political party and cost as little as $3 apiece to buy, hang on lampposts, often in groups of two or more. Larger billboards also abound, although they usually promote larger, wealthier political parties like Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Frank Stauss, a political and advertising consultant who has advised more than 30 political campaigns in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, says the campaign poster tradition in Germany dates back hundreds of years and serves as an election equalizer in modern-day Germany.
“Not everyone can afford a TV spot or radio commercial, so the poster is a democratic campaign tool, if you will,” he says — one that boils down a campaign message to a sentence or less.
The posters are also important because candidates and political parties in Germany have more restrictions on buying airtime than in the U.S., Stauss says.
The reasoning “is that big money should not give you a big advantage,” Stauss says. “In the U.S., you had about 1 million TV ads during the last presidential campaign aired in the battleground states, and in all of Germany, you have about 1,000 campaign ads airing.”
Stauss and other campaign experts say clever and witty phrasing on the posters tends to work best, especially for candidates and parties that aren’t well-known.
One example is the Pirate Party of Berlin. It was among the first social media-based parties that did well in Berlin state elections six years ago, but according to its founder, placards were more powerful than the Internet in attracting voters.
“People thought: ‘Okay, now they are out there,’ ” Stauss says, “and if you are out there with your signs, then you are a credible party.'”
He says one of his favorite placards was from the 1994 campaign of Rudolf Scharping, who was running against then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The poster showed a younger Kohl with the slogan “Politics without a beard,” which played off a German proverb linking the lack of a beard to a lack of experience.
But the play on words can backfire, as Social Democratic candidate Thomas Krueger learned the same year. Then 35, the candidate was a Berlin state senator running for the German parliament. He posed naked, riffing off a German expression about being “an honest skin,” which refers to someone who is sincere.
The nude image generated a media and voter backlash, and Krueger lost the election.
In this campaign season, some of the messaging is uncomfortable — even offensive — to many German citizens, especially Muslims. The Alternative for Germany party is responsible for the largest number of controversial posters, although even it decided last month that one of its placards went too far and pulled it from circulation.
It showed a piglet in a grass field with the slogan: “Islam? Doesn’t fit with our cuisine.” Pork is a forbidden meat under Islam.
AfD co-chair Alexander Gauland told the daily Bild newspaper that they decided to pull the poster because it inspired too much sympathy for the pig.
“I’m concerned children will say: ‘What? They want to slaughter this pig?’ ” the paper quoted him saying.
The AfD approach is abhorrent and often nonsensical, says Gero Neugebauer, a retired professor and political analyst in Berlin. Most Germans consider issues like education, labor policies and social justice when casting ballots rather than slogans, he says.
“But I think these [posters] could convince someone who isn’t able to [distinguish] between policies and jokes,” Neugebauer says.
Another controversial poster is being distributed by the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany. It features a famous portrait of Reformation leader Martin Luther with the slogan: “I would vote for the NPD — I couldn’t do otherwise.”
Braunschweig Lutheran Bishop Christoph Meyns blasted the poster as “intolerable” and “distorting [Luther’s] message absurdly,” according to the German news agency DPA.
“This is a very bad situation,” but one with no legal recourse, Christian Priesmeier of Hamlin, who heads a network of Luther’s descendants, tells NPR. “They don’t know about Luther and his ideas, and what they are pronouncing there is totally wrong.”
NPD’s many critics note that poster or not, there is extremely little chance the party will earn enough votes on Sunday to get into the German parliament. The AfD, though, is another matter. It’s currently third in the polls.