Election posters push a Merkel referendum
Chancellor stars as poster girl even in campaigns of rivals
Images of Chancellor Merkel can be flattering or not - depending on who is paying for them
Walk around any German city these days and you’d be forgiven for thinking the country wasn’t facing a federal election on September 22nd but a referendum on Angela Merkel.
As the chancellor runs for a third term, the images of Angie are everywhere: sometimes flattering, sometimes not – depending on who paid for them. Though the influence of social media and the internet is growing, posters and print advertising remain the meat and potatoes of German election campaigns. Broadcast advertising rules are restrictive and none of Germany’s political parties have enough money for a big spend on television spots.
The two main parties – Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) – have earmarked about €20 million each for their campaigns. What sounds like a lot of money for cardboard is soon spent in a country the size of Germany.
And, as election veterans here point out, US presidential hopefuls spend that kind of money each day of their campaigns. As in the last election, the CDU poster is focused around Merkel – no surprise given approval ratings of 60-per-cent plus. But the German leader wanted something different this time, to appeal to non-ideological voters in the political centre. The problem, as Merkel strategists admit, was that many of these savvy young voters were put off by the CDU’s perceived dowdy image. And fremdschämen – feeling embarrassed for a person or, in this case, a political party – is not the emotion you want to inspire in potential voters.
After identifying the political centre as where this election would be won or lost, the German leader has spent the last years modernising the CDU by abandoning decades-old conservative policies. Out went nuclear energy, in came childcare.
To make sure these changes were communicated to voters, Dr Merkel abandoned traditional CDU election agencies for Lutz Meyer, an advertising heavy-hitter who worked on the winning campaigns of Gerhard Schröder.
“Merkel had moved the party into the political middle ground but, optically, the party had lagged behind,” said Meyer in his all-white office, high above Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard. “Our task was to update the party’s image to reflect the change and reduce the inhibition threshold for younger voters to back them.”
He created a new CDU brand with a lighter, curvier font called Scopex and brighter colours. A new website (angela-merkel.de) is filled with bite-sized biography in Merkel’s own voice. But Meyer’s most striking touch is using images that forgo the traditional election tricks of make-up and retouching.
Despite the euro crisis, the CDU leader looks something approaching natural. In a country where election posters usually make politicians looks like airbrushed “Wanted” outlaws, Meyer’s images of Merkel are a minor revolution.
The CDU is not the only party trying to innovate. To close a 15-point gap, the opposition SPD is knocking on doors – a departure in a country where candidates usually intercept voters in shopping precincts or lure them to rallies. The SPD’s main campaign posters have a broad target audience – from families to pensioners – but a concentrated social justice message.
Attracting more attention, though, is its first foray into negative campaigning with unflattering images and Merkel quotes. “Best government since Germany unity?” asks one, over an image of the chancellor resting her eyes in the Bundestag. But many advertising experts have dismissed the effort as lacking bite.
PR consultant Eckehard Ernst told Focus magazine many voters were likely to only see “best government”, miss the question mark and wonder why the SPD is praising its political rival.
The Greens have also prepared negative campaign posters skewering Merkel – not that many have been seen: their eco-friendly posters have started to disintegrate in the rain and fall off their poles. In an otherwise insipid campaign of empty slogans and little content, the pre-election Merkel pre-occupation suggests the CDU leader is a political product even her rivals are willing to place.
“When people hear Merkel’s name they say they think of trust, competence, calm,” said Meyer. “When you get consistent answers like that, then you have a brand.”