Friday 22 March 2024

A drink in the Black Forest


I first travelled to the Black Forest around the time of this musical masterpiece (or at least, the Herb Alpert version). My parents bought me a little plastic cuckoo-clock-style house, which you could peer into and click a button for changing colourful landscapes - dark pine forests, snow and sky, sweeping lush pastures with perfectly positioned cows.

I didn’t return for more than two decades, which is when I most likely first encountered the wonderful Pils from Rothaus brewery - Tannenzäpfle. The pine-cone beer. The beer has been around longer than I have, and originally featured an illustration of a the typical Schwarzwaldmädel beloved in the wholesome Heimat films from the 1950s. These were a kind of escape into a world that never really was, an attempt to console the German population and blot out some of the stains of Nazism from the national psyche:

The label was redesigned in 1972, with a graphic version of the young lady - nicknamed “Biergit Kraft” by brand fans. I recall that this characteristic bottle was the beer available at the primary school’s “garden” at our local Hof und Gassenfest, along with Baden wines and Schwarzwald sausages, further imprinting the idyllic imagery in my mind. It’s a brand that’s a long way from edgy, gritty, urban pubs or laddish humour. In the past, sponsorships and a bit of outdoor aside, Tannenzäpfle hasn’t been a huge advertiser. But who needs to be, with a label like that?

But that’s all changed. The first big brand campaign for Tannenzäpfle has been developed by Kreuzbergkind (you can’t get less Schwarzwald, or more Berlin than that agency’s name!)

It’s all based around the idea of “Always calm.”

It’s a nice campaign - I like the calm pace, the slowing down, the serenity.

But I wonder: is it a little bit too goody-goody? Substitute other methods of crafting, and it could be for mineral water, or outdoor clothing or something like Bionade. It’s missing the quirkiness of “Biergit Kraft” and her pine cones. 

Pass me a another slice of Schwarzwälderkirschtorte while I consider.

Friday 8 March 2024

Just neat


One reason that so much advertising looks identikit these days is the obsession with representation and “people who look like me.” I’ve discussed this in relation to static images already here and here. With film, taken to its logical and literal extreme, the result is invariably one of those generic creations that resemble what we used to call a mood film. No story, just a series of vignettes showing different people all using the brand. 

But with a distinct move back to more entertaining and humorous advertising, it’s time to look behind that mirror. After all, Alice found some pretty weird, neat and entertaining stuff there. And Just Eat have done just that with a delightful series of short films. Close your eyes and listen - you can probably identify with the conversation in at least one of these films. 

Maybe the voices even “sound like you” - or someone you know. Now, open your eyes - someone who “looks like you”? Unlikely, unless you get your kicks dressing up in a furry bunny costume at weekends.

These Wes Anderson-style puppets are the latest in a run of pretty impressive advertising from Just Eat. I am unfamiliar with the brand as I don’t live in the UK, but I know a good thing when I see it as far as creative goes.

Animals and brand mascots have always been a useful trick in the ad magician’s box. 

Cute cats and dogs behaving (almost) naturally - either for “natural fit” brands (real life, like Arthur the white cat, or cartoon like "Cats like Felix like Felix”) or for brands where the association is built (the Dulux dog, the Andrex puppy).

Anthropomorphised animals of all sorts - again, either real or animated/puppets - the Cresta and Hofmeister bears, the Duracell and Caramel bunnies, the CompareTheMeercat bunch, the PG Tips chimps, Tony the Tiger from Frosties ...

Or the vaguely humanoid product mascots - Bertie Bassett, the Michelin Man, Mr. Peanut - although these may be more vulnerable to changing times, as M&Ms have demonstrated.

Given the popularity of cat, dog, wombat, capybara, llama, guinea pig and marmot films on social media it’s a wonder that casting a few furry friends instead of casting around to find someone that “looks like me” hasn’t been revived earlier. 

Friday 1 March 2024

RETROWURST: Ten years in Germany March 2006


My latest delve around the Extrawurst archives has made me feel uncharacteristically glum. For this month’s Retrowurst was a personal reflection on how life in Germany had changed in the ten years since my touchdown one chilly March morning at Frankfurt airport, in 1996.

Partly because optimism was my default setting in 2006 and partly because those days really were more hopeful than the current grim era, this article makes me yearn for those days gone by. I characterised the changes I observed as Germany moving from its rigid, rulebound, stuffy character to something more flexible, changeable and fluid. 

Shops were opening up on Saturday afternoons and evenings! 

Women were on the up, even mums in the workplace, with Angela Merkel and the “extraordinary” Ursula von der Leyen in charge! 

A vibrant, southeast-Europe-influenced youth culture, galaxies away from the 80s USA-influenced dull rockstar stuff was thriving!

And that’s not all!


Around about now – I can’t remember the exact date as I’m not yet that German – is the tenth anniversary of my arrival in Germany. Seeing that there seems to be an overkill of anniversary-celebrating in advertising here these days (this is the “can’t-think-of-a-better-idea-so-let’s-use-our-31st-anniversary-and-some-funny-nostalgia-footage-from-the-70s” school of advertising) I thought I’d join in, be a little self-indulgent and let you know what I see as the biggest change factors in Germany since I’ve been living here.


Overall, I suppose it can be summed-up that the Germans are being dragged kicking and screaming away from their rigidity, their rules and their solidity to a more flexible, changeable, fluid way of living. Of course, the rules and rigidity are still there (someone from the local Ordnungsamt could apparently come around at any time and ask us to dig up our laurel hedge because it’s not a plant local to Germany – just let them try that and I’ll give them what-for about flora racism!) but there have been some encouraging signs that things are becoming a little less stiff and stuffy.


From my own point of few, one of the biggest changes that symbolise this relaxation in attitude is the change in opening times for shops. When I first came here, everything shut on Saturday at 1 o’clock except for one Saturday in the month when shops shut at 4 o’clock. To be honest, I could never be bothered remembering which Saturday it was and always braved the crowds of formidable Hausfrauen in a sleepy haze every Saturday morning. The only places where there was an exception to this rule were petrol stations, where one could buy emergency items – I remember being viewed with complete disdain as I bought a packet of rice at five-thirty on a Saturday afternoon – or the kiosks where one can buy beer, cigarettes, newspapers and rather nasty wine. Needless to say, these have a rather dubious clientele, and you wouldn’t want to be spotted by your boss buying a couple of bottles of beer from one: it would send out all the wrong signals! 


Weekday evenings were also not much better, with most shops closing at six, so you’d often have to rush out of work shortly before six, brave the queues, then dash back in to do another hour or two. Gradually, though things have changed. It’s now perfectly possible to buy food and drink until 8 in the evening without being made to feel like a social inadequate and although Sunday opening still seems a long way off, life is a lot less stressed.


Maybe now that they’ve been released from queuing at the Tengelmann checkouts on Saturday mornings and have more time to do something useful and interesting could be one reason that women are (at last!) on the “up” in Germany. I can always remember how completely amazed I was when I arrived here of the conservative, chauvinistic attitude of traditional Germany towards women. I think that, from the outside, one imagines that Germany is a typical modern “Northern European” country, maybe a bit like the Scandinavian countries, in terms of its attitude to women. But my own experiences and those of friends continually proved this otherwise. Young women in Germany are perhaps lulled into a false sense of security: opportunities really are equal in terms of higher education where as many young women are at university as young men. In fact, the men are a little bit “behind” at this stage as the National or Social Service (one year to eighteen months at age 19) is only compulsory for men. And opportunities on the lower rungs of the career ladder seem to be quite fairly spread, too. But it is once women have children that the problems start.


It is an alarming statistic that only half of women born in Germany in 1960 with a higher academic qualification have children. Children are still viewed as a career-killer for women: companies simply do not offer opportunities for senior women executives to combine family and career, childcare is inadequate and the school-system is still based on half-days where the children from 6-19 finish at noon without lunch.


However, with Angela Merkel in power, together with her Minister for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth, the extraordinary Ursula von der Leyen (a doctor, very photogenic, seven children!), the groundswell of opinion seems to be changing. Injustice in the workplace is becoming a topic of public debate and there seem to be real efforts to drag Germany out of the 1950s (and before) in terms of attitudes to and provision for working mothers.


Talking of Angela Merkel brings me on to the next point. Not only is Angie female, but she is also from the former DDR which is a bit of a double whammy. When I first arrived here, the “East” were still very much the poor relatives and somewhat resented. Former West Germans grumbled about the amount of money they were shelling out to the East in taxes and the former East Germans – “Ossies” – were regarded very much as figures of fun: somewhat naïve characters with dreadful fashion sense left over from the 1980s and music taste to match. A few years later, around the early noughties, there was an acceptance that the “Ossies” were here to stay and wave of Ostalgie or “Eastalgia” swept the country with T-shirts sporting logos of former DDR brands, the revival of many “cult” brands and websites devoted to the whole era. Cities such as Dresden and Leipzig were actively pushed not just as tourist destinations but also as potential hosts for forthcoming events.


These days, however, the difference, such as it was, is hardly noticed. The roads in former East Germany are every bit as good as those in the West (thanks to all those taxes, presumably) and in events like the national song contest (a bit of homage to Eurovision) it’s hard to say whether the Neu or Altbundesländer are more innovative and cutting edge when it comes to music and fashion.


On the subject of fashion – not that I’m an expert on youth culture anywhere at my age – it does certainly seem that the influence of the US on young people here has waned. While certain US-originated styles do seem to have an influence, the youth here take those styles and customise them locally. One good example is Hip-Hop which is more often heard here in the German language on the radio than in the original. Interestingly, it seems to be Southeast Europe that has an increasing influence on German youth culture. With large immigrant populations from former Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania and of course Turkey, German middle-class youth has real life “ghettoes and gangsters” in the neighbourhood with plenty of language and dress codes with which to shock traditional parents.


While the kids are getting nicely integrated into Southeast European ways, the rest of the population seems largely happy with closer ties within Europe as a whole. While there was plenty of grumbling about the Euro and how everything had been marked up (ooh, it’s just the same in Euros as in Marks – no pun intended) for the first couple of years, one has the feeling now that people are beginning to see the benefits. It certainly seems to have eased traveling within other Euro countries for many people: driving through Europe these days you hardly notice the borders and you often find yourself asking what country you’re in!


The common currency and a few common “enemies” – not least the war-mongering politicians of certain nations - do seem to have united the people of Germany closer with their immediate neighbours. There is a definite feeling of Camaraderie or I suppose I should say Bruderschaft around, especially in places like the Ryan Air airports. The cheap air travel has also contributed to this Eurocentricity, and popping off to Jerez, Montpelier or Milan for the weekend has become as affordable as taking the family to the nasty theme park half an hour down the road. 


These are just some of the signs I’ve seen over the last ten years of Germany losing its stuffiness and rigidity. I’m sure there are many others and I’ll keep my eyes and ears open too over the next ten years.


Well, 18 years on, I am German. The shops are still firmly shut on Sundays and Segmüller still runs dire 131st anniversary radio ads. Some things carried on getting better, such as the lot of working mums, but sadly, too late for me. 

National Service has been abolished, but how long before it’s revived in the current war-ridden mess?

What’s of concern is that some things seem to be going backwards - or rather towards a new and different form of stiffness, rigidity and lack of openness. One rule book has been torn up, but there’s a weird new one in place, written by fear. The former East German states are strongholds for the AfD and other extremists of various shades.

And a thousand and one articles about Germany - The Sick Man of Europe. The less I say about Ursula von der Leyen, the better.

Maybe the answer is to dig out my 2006-tinted glasses and philosophise that perhaps a step or two backwards is inevitably the way forward.