Racism in Germany is usually associated with far-right groups and neo-Nazis. But anti-racism campaigners say the country's advertising industry is also guilty of rampant insensitivity towards ethnic minorities.
"Kent Nagano conducts Wagner" -- charming or tasteless?
Plans to stage an African cultural festival in a zoo in the southern German town of Augsburg last month sparked condemnation among the country's anti-racism groups. The incident was given wide coverage in Germany’s mainstream media.
But apart from such one-off controversial events, what hardly receives any attention, according to campaigners, is long-running insensitivity towards ethnic minorities in the country’s advertising industry.
A case in point is a poster (photo, above) created for the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden last year to advertise German composer Richard Wagner’s "Parsifal" performed by acclaimed US conductor Kent Nagano, currently creative head of the German Symphony Orchestra in Berlin. It showed a famous portrait of Wagner, given a pair of arms with the help of a computer, making slanted eyes in an obvious reference to Nagano’s Japanese origins.
The poster, "Kent Nagano Conducts Wagner," didn't even raise an eyebrow in mainstream Germany. But it did catch the attention of advertising industry insiders -- they awarded it a top prize in Berlin earlier this year.
"I think it's tasteless and racist," said Dagmar Yu-Dembski, chairwoman of the German-Chinese friendship society in Berlin, who documents examples of racial stereotypes in the media and advertising. "Highlighting the physical features of Asians in this way is just a cheap ploy to grab attention. The crass reference to Nagano's ethnicity has nothing to do with a classical music concert."
Aki Takase, a well-known Japanese pianist and composer based in Berlin agreed.
"It is shameful that his origins seem to be so much more important in this case than his immense musical talent," Takase said.
Kent Nagano was unavailable for a comment.
Insensitivity to issues of ethnicity is widespread in German advertising, according to campaigners.
Noah So, a prominent black German radio presenter and singer (photo), who founded the group "Der braune Mob," which monitors race issues in the media and advertising, said most Germans think it's perfectly normal to make fun of certain racial minorities.
"In commercials or advertising posters, Asians and blacks are usually used to either give Germans something to laugh about or they’re reduced to ethnic clichés," So said. She referred to a current commercial on MTV Germany for an online music download platform, in which an Asian teenager never manages to buy music by his favorite band, as he can’t utter the letter "r" and keeps saying "Lamones" instead of "Ramones."
"Das Neue Ladio -- Sehl Gutel Musiksendl" -- Radio channel Youfm for youngsters falls back on the alleged Asian speech quirk (R) again in its advertisement for "The New Radio -- Very Good Music Program"
Such stereotypes are frequently played upon in German ads. "Asians are usually depicted as small, giggly people who can't pronounce the letter "r" and constantly take photographs, while blacks are shown either as victims in need of donations or as hip DJs," So said.
"I see black -- I see white," an advertisement for the GEZ central fees office for public broadcasting in Germany. In German, doing something "black" means doing it illegally.
Norbert Finzsch, a history professor at the University of Cologne, agreed. "The way Africans and African Americans in Germany are perceived and discussed, the way they are presented on billboards and in TV ads proves that the colonialist and racist gaze is still very much alive in Germany," he said in an open letter last month calling for the African cultural festival in the Augsburg zoo not to open.
Selective political correctness?
The allegations might seem surprising given that Germany is known to be particularly careful about relations with its 6.8 million-strong immigrant population, in view of its past.
But anti-racism campaigners suggest that many Germans have a selective concept of political correctness -- an attitude which is perpetuated by advertising, they say.
"There are many decision-makers -- but ours rely on technology and multimedia."
"Naturally, you won't find any racist or offensive portrayals of Jews or Sinti and Roma people in German advertising, because most Germans are acutely aware that that's off-limits," So said.
Yu-Dembski added that given Germany's large Turkish population of some 1.9 million, the stereotyping of Muslims in commercials is also taboo. "The Asian community, in comparison, is small and almost invisible. There's almost this unspoken agreement that the Asians are the laughing stock in German advertising," she said.
Please continue reading to find out what the advertising industry has to say