This month’s delve into the Retrowurst archive chronicles the “flaunt your stinginess” trend of the early 2000s, led by some high profile campaigns from discount retailers. It’s an interesting one for me as this period was one of my low points financially, and looking back, I think I took great glee in buying cheap wine at Aldi, frequenting flea-markets and then what we’d now call virtue-signalling about it all to anyone who’d listen.
About this time last year, a blue and silver cyber-woman burst onto our TV screens here in Germany, proclaiming “Geiz ist Geil” – “It’s cool to be mean and stingy”, roughly translated. This cyber lady may have only been the spokesperson for the new advertising campaign for the Saturn electronics warehouse but somehow her aggressive proclamation captured the spirit of consumer opinion in Germany and launched not only countless copycat advertising campaigns but also a trend of literally wearing your stinginess on your sleeve.
It’s maybe no co-incidence that the Saturn campaign came from Jung von Matt, one of Germany’s best home-grown advertising agencies. As an agency, they have a talent for really tapping into what’s going on, developing punchy creative ideas and being able to demonstrate the sales effectiveness of their campaigns- at Jung von Matt, the Strategic Planners are called Effizienzers. The Saturn campaign had such a profound effect because it was one advertising campaign that really tapped into the Zeitgeist and said what millions had thought but no-one had dared to say. Like Wall Street before it, with the Michael Douglas character’s pronouncement of “Greed is Good” (and, of course, many great advertising campaigns are derivative of something!), “Geiz ist Geil” has hit the nerve-ending of the age, at least for Germany in 2003.
As a nation, the Germans are used to being successful, be it economically or in football. The will to win and to ‘do well’ is written strong in the German psyche. When the Brits go through an economic crisis, we laugh it off, or find someone else to blame for our misfortune. The Germans, however, took the economic downturn very seriously and very personally. The whole country went through (and is still going through) a crisis of self-confidence. People were bombarded with newspaper articles and TV programs about how the economic disaster was the Germans’ own doing and if they were unemployed or redundant then they only had themselves to blame. It was with furtiveness and embarrassment that once prosperous people were seen sneaking into bargain-basement stores.
Traditionally, the German mentality with consumer durables is to buy quality brands that last- such things are seen as an investment. However, reduced disposable income has meant many people having to find acceptable quality at a more than reasonable price, which is where “Geiz ist Geil” came in. This slogan provided a rallying cry to the hard-up consumer. More than just being a “Smart Shopper”, this consumer-power movement gave people permission to actually flaunt their stinginess in public and celebrate it.
Within weeks of the campaign breaking, celebrities were being photographed in the gossip magazines with Saturn and Aldi carrier bags. A whole host of other retailers followed suit and penned their own versions of the campaign. The most creative advertising agencies were all falling over each other trying to grab a retail discounter account, in the same way that they’d all fought over the luxury goods and fashion labels a few years back. Existing campaigns, from the likes of Ikea, MediaMarkt and H&M strengthened their price messages.
The latest development in this trend draws in the parallel trend of reality TV shows (just to add to the celebration of cheap ‘n’ tacky, perhaps). A spate of books by ‘celebrities’ and the consequent kiss & tell stories in the cheaper newspapers has revealed that these ‘celebrities’ are some of the biggest cheapskates in Germany. In a recent book by one of his (many) ex-girlfriends, Dieter Bohlen (ex-pop singer, record producer, ageing womaniser and Superstars jury member) was revealed as being a cheapskate as well as a love rat. Unperturbed by this, Dieter has signed up for a very lucrative contract with BBDO in their advertising campaign for MakroMarkt, another electronics discounter. Unsurprisingly, the slogan is ‘es lebe billig’ or “Cheapness lives!” Dieter enthuses in the TV ads that everything there is so “schweinbillig” or “dirt cheap”. And he can be seen, in his full tackiness on the website at www.makromarkt.de – the website is a lovely parody of retail advertising from the 70s, complete with multiple starbursts! (now defunct)
The latest signs as regards the serious matter of the German economy are that it seems to be recovering. But with Aldi cookbooks appearing on the best-seller lists I’m sure it won’t be too long before we see a show called something like “Celebrity Bargainhunter” on our TV screens. The signs are that the Germans are taking “cheapness” as seriously as they once took investing in quality and this trend may be one that is here to stay.
In the years since this was written, thriftiness hasn’t gone away, but it’s sidled up to sustainability and a general desire not to be wasteful. Absolute price and cheapness has become less of a thing after all those discounters got pulled under the microscope for less-than-sustainable practices throughout the value chain. So we’re now seeing IKEA getting into the rental market and circular economy, for example.
It strikes me that there have been few German ad slogans with such power (with the odd exception of a couple of DIY stores) since, maybe because so many campaigns are developed globally and transliterated. There were plenty of complaints at the time about the word Geil (which literally means “horny”) but these days, people take offence at different things.
Dieter Bohlen is still knocking around, though, sitting on talent show juries, producing records, grinning out of the gossip magazines and advertising everything from Camp David clothes to Roller (cheap) furniture. But, thankfully, he is not singing.