Will Kohl have the last laugh?

An attempt by Germany’s embattled Christian Democrat Party (CDU) to inject some humour into its election campaign, has prompted criticism from the country’s leading advertising and communications experts.

The party’s latest poster ads feature an elephant bathing in the Wolfgangsee, beneath the headline “Keep Kohl”. At the bottom of the image are the words “Schne Urlbsgrusse vom Wolfgangsee. (Holiday Greetings from Wolfgangsee). For those unfamiliar with the German chancellor’s lifestyle, the poster is making a light-hearted reference to his famous girth and habit of taking holidays in the Austrian resort of Wolfgangsee. The ad was unveiled to coincide with Kohl’s electioneering tour of holiday resorts as he attempts to boost poll ratings which suggest that he will lose the general election in September.

Kohl, who is said to have once kept Margaret Thatcher waiting while he nipped into a tea shop for cream cakes, was reported by the CDU’s general secretary, Peter Hintze, to have been delighted with his portrayal as an elephant: “The elephant, is a very intelligent animal… steadfast and sensitive, even if that’s not obvious at first glance.”

While the Chancellor may appreciate its mixture of humour and obscurity, the campaign has baffled many of the country’s top communications experts. Bernd Michael, chief executive of Grey Germany argues that the German people expect to see real substance in political communications. Georg Baums of Publicis is also critical of the CDU communications effort. He believes the campaign fails to address the problem of motivating voters or of explaining what the party actually stands for.

These comments are in line with the findings of Grey International’s own examination of political campaign techniques in the report Shaping Attitudes towards the European Union (1995). The report found that the most effective campaigns were those which took the trouble to explain important and often complex issues to the electorate.

Of course, humour is often a powerful and effective brand communication device. It can generate goodwill, encourage recall and make complex ideas easier to assimilate. But it is rarely used for political campaigning because of the risk of appearing frivolous.

Writing in a recent edition of Brand Strategy, the design consultant Martin Devlin offered six key points for organisations to consider when thinking about using humour in their communications. Among them, he urged advertisers to ask themselves the fundamental question of whether or not it is “appropriate”.

Certainly, the Christian Democrats needed to do something to revitalise their campaign and help close the gap on the Social Democrats. But the use of humour to win over a disaffected electorate seems not just inappropriate but, incre asingly, like a desperate act.

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