Where there are elections, there are necessarily election posters. Mushrooming overnight, they line the streets and squares for weeks, often in the run-up to federal and state level elections in Germany. Very few are really attractive. But they can be effective if they get their point across.
“A poster can hold the gaze of passers-by or busy drivers for three to four seconds,” explains Frank Brettschneider, communications scientist at the University of Hohenheim. “So it must be good.”
Klaus Staeck, Germany’s most prominent poster artist, for example, is an ace at creating effective posters. Many of his works are on display in museums today, including some provocative pieces. For example, Staeck produced a poster in conjunction with Greenpeace in 1988 that featured profile photos of two bigwigs in the chemical industry with the slogan: “Everybody’s talking about the climate, we’re messing it up.” The industries in question were the pharmaceutical giants Hoechst AG and Kali Chemie AG, whose factories at the time produced greenhouse gases that were harmful to the environment.
Media researcher Frank Brettschneider
Greenpeace stuck these posters all over Germany, and the two men who were photographed took them to court in an attempt to stop the poster from being published as it showed their photos and names. Nine years later, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Greenpeace’s claim for freedom of expression.
Mixture of satire and irony
Many of Staeck’s slogans and ideas are still copied, even during regular election campaigns. That’s because Staeck’s proven recipe for success is a mixture of satire and irony, with a hint of protest. “I always foresee the risk of being misunderstood,” the 83-year-old law graduate launches with a wink. He was involved in 41 legal proceedings during his career as an artist.
But Staeck, an avowed Social Democrat and former president of the Berlin Academy of the Arts from 2006 to 2015, never allowed himself to be harnessed to a party cart, not even that of his beloved Social Democratic Party ( SPD).
In 1972 he created a poster that shouted: “German workers, the SPD wants to take your villas in Ticino! Staeck said he wanted to provoke people with this absurd exaggeration. The Social Democrats are surprised. A supporter approached him at a later event and asked him, “Name me a worker who owns a villa!” “
Satire with bite: poster artist Klaus Staeck
The times have changed. Today, the SPD is struggling to win over the lost voters, and Olaf Scholz, the party’s candidate for chancellor, is supposed to win them over and push them away from Christian Lindner, the leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Brettschneider, the communications professional, divides party election posters into two large groups. The SPD and FDP both have posters focused on people with leaders who perform well in polls. In contrast, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Green Party have thematic posters, presumably to compensate their hapless chancellor candidates, Armin Laschet and Annalena Baerbock. “Laschet costs the CDU / CSU votes, so they put more emphasis on party issues,” explains Brettschneider.
Scientists concluded that a billboard only gets its message across in the blink of an eye if it is focused, not overloaded, and uses a readable, high-contrast font. Brettschneider, however, thinks it’s more important that the person in the poster is recognizable. The parties are currently doing “quite well in terms of design,” he says.
CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, for example, now smiles through a black-red-gold circle. Annalena Baerbock of the Greens announces her message on a gray-green background. SPD candidate Olaf Scholz poses in front of a bright red, while FDP’s Christian Lindner glances sideways at viewers. The right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) praises Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla as “Two for Germany”, while the Left Party promotes “social justice” in capital letters.
Greens poster featuring chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock says: “Business and climate without crisis”
In this sense, today’s posters are not that different from their predecessors. Even the billboard of the National Constitutional Assembly in 1919 was succinct: “Order, peace, freedom,” promised the German Democratic Party, a year after Germany’s defeat in World War I. The poster shows a female figure waving her iron hand against demons of the past. “Who will save Prussia from ruin?” asked the German National People’s Party. “Equal rights, equal duties” for men and women, urged the Social Democrats.
Propaganda vs. election advertising
Fourteen years later, the National Socialists will campaign against the Jews before the Reichstag elections in March 1933. These will be the last Reichstag elections in which more than one party participates. Political opponents were then eliminated, marking the start of the era of National Socialism and war.
Coming back to the present, where is the line between propaganda and election advertising? “Nothing is protected from abuse. Advertising is everything from political unrest to advertising to consumers,” says Klaus Staeck.
“A poster is neither a book nor a party platform,” explains communications professional Brettschneider, adding that a strong image has more impact than a good slogan.
This CDU election poster (2013) of the ‘Merkel diamond’ – the typical hand position of Chancellor Angela Merkel – is a composite of many individual images
“Laboratory eye tracking analyzes confirm that posters with images attract more attention than those with text. So a picture is also worth a thousand words in election advertising.
A reading of the history of posters underscores this. Poster-like material was already used in ancient times to communicate messages to the public, for example in market places or in front of churches or townhouses. The characters and symbols on the stones carved in ancient Egypt are considered the earliest form of posters.
The invention of modern typography by German inventor and publisher Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) in the mid-15th century and the discovery of lithography by German actor and playwright Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) enabled the production of posters in larger Numbers.
The advancement of poster art
However, poster lithography did not begin its triumphant progression until around 1860 from England. French artists discovered the genre for themselves, especially Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), great poster master alongside colleagues such as Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen or Eugène Grasset. Jules Cheret (1836-1932), also French, designed more than 1000 posters and was once crowned “the king of the poster”.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s works are still among the best in poster art
The artistic poster however established itself relatively late in Germany. This would soon change thanks to the association of expressionist artists “Die Brücke” or The Bridge made up of members such as Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Erich Heckel and the magazine “Der Sturm” (The Storm) published in Berlin by Herwarth Walden.
Russian avant-garde artists also contributed to a particularly fascinating chapter in the history of poster art. In a brief phase between the mid-1920s and early 1930s, they designed movie posters for which they used new cinematic techniques: extreme close-ups, special angles, and dramatic proportions. Human faces were bathed in garish colors, body contours were elongated or distorted, and people were spliced with animal bodies.
Today, posters are highly coveted collector’s items. The works of many important German poster artists such as Alfons M. Mucha, Ludwig Hohlwein and Klaus Staeck are exhibited, for example, at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, the Brandenburg State Museum of Modern Art and even the Garden Museum in Erfurt.
Clever pun: poster featuring former foreign minister Joschka Fischer
The combination of pictures and words has always been effective. A legendary election poster from 2002 had former German Foreign Minister and Greens politician Joschka Fischer looking amused into the camera.
In a clever play of just four German words, it translates to “minister on the outside, green on the inside” – the German word “aussen” meaning both “outside” and “foreign” in this context. Copies of this poster are on display in the Living Museum Online of the German House of History, the German Historical Museum and the German Federal Archives.
But isn’t a poster vying for roadside attention somewhat out of place, especially in the age of the internet and social media? “Quite the contrary,” says Frank Brettschneider. Research on the recent Baden-Württemberg regional elections has revealed surprising results. On the one hand, election posters are the campaign tool that attracts the most attention. On the other hand, they are mostly used by the youngest, even those who are on image-oriented social networks like Instagram or YouTube. This should be good news for all parties.
Author of the photo gallery: Annabelle Steffes-Halmer