Germans Told to Cheer Up. ‘Why Should We?’ Some Say.
First there are trees silhouetted against a pastoral horizon; then a distinguished-looking elderly lady appears on screen looking you right in the eye as she says, “You are Germany’s miracle.”
From then on, as this slickly produced spot broadcast on German television continues, a succession of people, famous and not famous, appears, each speaking a segment of a larger inspirational message.
“A butterfly can cause a typhoon,” a well-known television hostess says. A young Asian woman holding a baby follows with, “The blast of wind that comes from its wings may uproot trees kilometers away.”
The television message includes gay and handicapped people speaking from among the concrete pillars of Berlin’s recently opened Holocaust Memorial, the Olympic figure skating champion Katarina Witt and a cluster of small children pointing straight into the camera and shouting the main slogan: “Du bist Deutschland!” – “You are Germany!”
Produced free by one of Germany’s leading advertising agencies, the television sequence is part of a broader campaign, pretty much ubiquitous in the country these days, aimed at cheering up the presumably gloomy population, nudging Germans toward an unaccustomed optimism.
It is intended to make the public believe that, like that butterfly flapping its wings, a large number of small gestures can add up to a big difference.
Whether this is an appropriate way to battle the national melancholy – and opinions vary greatly on this issue – the very existence of such a campaign, reportedly the first of its sort in this country, is a sign of what is generally recognized here: that Germany is indeed in a sour mood, its economy in the doldrums, its financial deficits too high and none of its leaders strong or visionary enough to lead the way out.
“When you live in Germany, you feel that a lot of people are not sure about what is going on here,” said Oliver Voss, the director of the Jung von Matt advertising agency in Hamburg, who came up with the slogan. “A lot of people think that their fate is controlled by somebody else, and in our eyes that is a mistake.”
The campaign, appearing on billboards and in movie theaters all over Germany as well as on television, was the idea of a group of media executives who gathered toward the end of last year and decided something needed to be done to change the psychological atmosphere, in the hope that renewed self-confidence might help to set off a national recovery.
In this sense, to be sure, nobody is arguing that things are going well. The big disappointment probably is in what was, a decade and a half ago, this country’s biggest thrill, national unification after more than 40 years of cold war division.
But it has now settled pretty deeply in the collective awareness that unification has been an economic and a spiritual failure. It cost, and still costs, a staggering amount of money in financial transfers from the former West to the poorer and smaller former East, where the money seems to have vanished without a trace.
Now, the westerners are unhappy because the disappearance of all that money is seen as the root of Germany’s economic stagnation and high unemployment. The easterners are notoriously unhappy because life is less secure than it used to be under Communism, and, as this cycle continues, the westerners are irritated that the easterners are unhappy.
Faced with this situation, the group of media executives hired Mr. Voss to come up with a campaign, to be carried out entirely pro bono. It began a couple of months ago, and it would probably be hard to find a single person in Germany who has not been subjected to the message.
“When the campaign started,” Mr. Voss said, “in the first hour, more than one million people went to the Web site to check out what was going on. Every second, more than a thousand people went to the Web site. That’s an amazing number.”
Yes it is, but there are critics ready to rain on this parade anyway, arguing that what Germany needs is not singers and athletes (and literary critics, television anchor women and 8-year-olds) telling them to cheer up, but serious attention to the country’s real problems.
The intellectual weekly Die Zeit heaped scorn on the campaign, labeling it “propaganda” and excoriating its creators in particular for what the paper deemed their “tasteless” use of the Holocaust Memorial as a backdrop to the “You are Germany” chants of the gay and handicapped people.
“Unemployment is depicted as a consequence of the bad mood, a private phenomenon, which at any given time could be corrected by self-contemplation and positive thinking,” wrote the paper’s commentator, Jens Jessen.
“One would like to see how the scriptwriters who concocted such nonsense would explain to a 50-year-old engineer that he had lost his job only because he forgot that August Thyssen, Ferdinand Porsche and other famous workers of the German past once also started from scratch,” Mr. Jessen continued, referring to a 19th-century mining and steel magnate and the sports car maker.
Mr. Voss’s reply to this is, in part, that the criticism shows that people are paying attention, and that this generation of a discussion is a measure of the campaign’s success. He also cites a widely circulated survey showing that in Germany only 30 percent of the people think they can do something about their own fate, compared with 60 percent in the United States. In other words, Germans are by nature pessimistic, and that does have something to do with the poor economy.
“To put a smiley face over our problems was not the intention,” he said. “And if you look at the actual campaign, you’ll see that it says very simply, ‘Don’t withdraw your influence; try to see where the problems are and do what you can do.’ ”
Or, as five different characters say at the end of one of the spots: “Beat your wings. And uproot trees. You are the wings. You are the tree. You are Germany.”
“I like the message,” said Alexander Göhrs, who is 20 and one of Germany’s four million unemployed people. “Times are really hard. We all see that.”
But though he liked the message, he doubted that the campaign would have any practical effect.
“It’s not changing anything about my situation,” he said.
Check the “You are Germany” campaign’s website: www.du-bist-deutschland.de. Autor: Richard Bernstein