Popaganda: When Politics Appropriates Commercial Communications

The Semiotics of Germany’s State Senate Elections

Recent elections for the state senate in the German capital of Berlin were fought against the normal background of modern political communication as far as the main parties were concerned. Making things emotional is the order of the day. Posters for the largest party in Berlin, SDP, focused on their incumbent mayor, Michael Müller. Featuring only images of him in supposedly every day encounters with ordinary Berliners, there was no mention of policies, political goals, or even (at the start of the campaign at least) the name of his party. The rival CDU party, headed up by Angela Merkel on a national level, also focused on their lead candidate, Frank Henkel. This time, both the party and their key topics were featured: safety, the economy, and family. But once again Henkel was shown in an everyday situation – this time with his own son.

However, two of the smaller parties chose a different register, attempting to break through the repetitive blandness of professionally shot portraits of politicians. The way that they chose to do that tells us much about changes in German culture and the frames of reference for political communication in general.

Recent developments such as the Leave campaign in the UK and Donald Trump’s campaign success in the US have shone a spotlight on political communication in general. The Economist’s leader from September 10th is entitled ‘The art of the lie’ and tackles the issue head-on. Does it matter if politicians leave truth behind them? What does it say about modern politics if the truth of politicians’ claims is of secondary importance? But also what can be done to combat the fragmentation of news sources? We are now living in a time where friends on social networks are trusted more than mainstream media sources and the ‘truths’ they tell spread like lightning without any checks or balances.

What the global phenomenon reveals is that it has become the reaction to what you say rather than the content that matters. Thus feeling trumps fact. If you have the right feeling about what someone is saying, then it must be right. That feeling is often derived from two aspects of the communication: the provenance and its familiarity. It is noted in Daniel Kahnmeman’s Thinking Fast and Slow that it is easier to believe something with which you are familiar, something that does not cause your brain to pause in its workings, than something that makes your brain work harder. If something that you recognise, say an engrained prejudice, is being underlined or elaborated on by a person or entity that you know and like, then things feel doubly right.

What does this have to do with the political posters of two small German parties trying to enter the state parliament of Berlin? In this new realm of political communication (some would say non-communication), they both leveraged different aspects of branded communication and made their frame of reference more commercial. This reveals a subtle change in the standing and perception of commercial communication. For a long time now, Germany quietly prided itself on being a rational and reasonable country when it comes to politics. None of the American style wow and pizazz, no plays on words as in the UK and, above all, a clear dividing line between politics and advertising. In this recent election, the FDP and the Pirate Party of Berlin cross this line.

Image of pop up billboard in front of Berghain

In their campaign the economically liberal FDP implicitly cued recent Samsung advertising and activated ’80s design cues with their use of neon colours and diagonal patterns. They actively distanced themselves from the pathos of portrait photography by visualizing their main candidate in a cubist style, with his face made up of many individual triangular shapes. They used social media and guerilla marketing in a way hitherto unknown in political campaigning in Germany with a massive pop up billboard in front of the world famous techno club Berghain. The deliberately ambiguous line plays on the well-known affinity of club-goers to drugs, but actually refers to the need for more good teachers in Germany’s capital: “Chemistry lessons shouldn’t only happen after midnight”. By using semiotic codes and frames of reference that are familiar to a younger, club-going population, the FDP was able to increase the number of votes it received by nearly 5%. Framing a political message in a way that is culturally and socially familiar means that the barriers to hearing the message are lower. The cognitive ease is higher and arguably you are more likely to convert someone to your way of thinking.

Berlin Semiotics
Jan Schrecker, the main candidate for the constituency, told voters they had Better Call Jan.

The Pirate Party of Berlin moved a step further into the realm of brands and advertising. Two of the posters of their local chapter for Pankow, the biggest administrative district of Berlin, directly and consciously referenced branded communication. Jan Schrecker, the main candidate for the constituency, told voters they had Better Call Jan. His poster showed him in a pose identical to Saul Goodman on the recent advertising for the Netflix series Better Call Saul, which was splashed all over Berlin’s billboards. The colour, shape, and size of the typography were strikingly similar. The main difference is the inclusion of an actual phone number: the mobile number of Jan Schrecker (though Schrecker claimed he had only received 5 calls from potential voters after the posters went up). Another candidate for Pankow, Oliver Waack-Jürgensen, used one of the best known advertising slogans in Germany in recent years: Ikea’s “Wohnst du noch oder lebst du schon?” This slogan, which literally translates as, “Are you still just living somewhere or have you made yourself a home?” was used widely and repeatedly by Ikea over several years. In German, the slogan is short and sweet. The two verb forms are cleverly juxtaposed by the use of the particles “noch” and “schon” to create an oppositional comparison, an elegant semantic device that forces the reader to make a judgment call. In the case of Waack-Jürgensen the choice is about your attitude to the legalisation of drugs: “Kiffst du noch oder geniesst du schon?” Here the verb “kiffen” (which literally means to smoke weed) is used to represent a state of drug use that is secretive, illicit, and slightly skanky. On the opposite side of the equation, you could openly be enjoying your drugs and partaking of them without any fear or hesitation.

Oliver Waack-Jürgensen, used one of the best known advertising slogans in Germany in recent years: Ikea’s “Wohnst du noch oder lebst du schon?”

Why would Jürgensen adapt a well-known slogan from the one of the most anodyne companies in modern Europe to promote his call for the legalisation of cannabis? Precisely because of its familiarity and provenance. If you want to posit something that might be uncomfortable or provoke moral quandaries, then wrapping it up in the layers of warmth and cosiness which Ikea supplies will at least get your foot in the door.

Maybe getting a foot in the door is what it is all about. Just as in many mature democracies, participation in German politics on a national level is declining. Younger people are not signing up to join political parties. When asked, they say they are not political but they do care about issues. So how can the parties cut through the layers of apathy and resignation? Turn to what people know best and to entities they trust: familiar brands and their advertising campaigns and communications. Use the tone of voice, semantic devices, and imagery that they know and love. In short, occupy the semiotics of brands for your political means. If we accept that in Germany advertising is the type of communication that is the most familiar to the majority of people, then appropriating codes from that commercial world might mean that more people notice your message or at least don’t reject it. What does this mean for the future of political communication? The example of the FDP shows that using the codes and cues of successful commercial advertising to transport a political message can help you unlock audiences that seem otherwise resistant. Can this be done on a national scale? Time will tell but as audiences fragment and mainstream news sources lose their clout, making your message more ‘populär’, as the Germans say, must be the way forward.

– Max Leefe, Independent Cultural Analyst and Semiotician, Berlin