Germans are not exactly known as a nation of charmers, but the World Cup mania may change all that. A national friendliness campaign is pumping millions into putting the smile on every German face.
Not all Germans are stiff and dour-faced
Twenty thousand posters went up around Germany on Tuesday as part of a charm campaign to present Germany as a welcoming nation of relaxed, joyful people to soccer fans from all over the world ahead of the World Cup, which will be played in 12 German cities from June 9 to July 9.
"We are unfortunately not perceived as a particularly friendly people," World Cup organizing committee president Franz Beckenbauer told a press conference in Berlin signaling the start of the campaign. "We have to improve on that."
The National Service and Friendliness Campaign -- an initiative of the FIFA German World Cup Organization Committee and the German Tourist Board will last three months and cost three million euros ($3.5 million). It is funded by the German government. In addition to an official poster, it includes a 30-second television advertisement which shows smiling Germans from all walks of life rolling out red carpets under the trademarked slogan "A time to meet friends."
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The poster and the TV ad paint a dream vision of an elated country. They include a bizarre selection of the familiar and the unrecognizable: an extraordinarily peppy, dancing Bavarian in lederhosen; a bright and breezy police officer; a mildly seductive, rose-cheeked chamber maid; and an overeager medical worker waving a full syringe at her unsuspecting country-mates. The days of "Where's Waldo?" are definitely over. The time is ripe for "Where's your German friend?" instead.
It was a telling sign that officials chose to host the press conference for the launch of the gregarious campaign at one of the most prestigious addresses in Berlin -- the stylish hotel Adlon, a place in which friendliness is exaggerated to the point of embarrassment as a matter of daily routine.
It is literally impossible to meet an unfriendly person at the Adlon because the five-star hotel, which is located a stone's throw away from the Brandenburg Gate, doesn't have much to do with everday Germany.
The price of a smile is very high at the Adlon
It is a place in which the stilettos of heavily-accessorized women silently sink into the plush carpets while cultivated businessmen meander through the muffled halls with statesmanlike elegance. It is a place in which the coat check lady practically apologizes to you when you tell her you've lost your token, whereafter she gleefully dives into a pool of coats to look for your jacket as if she was fishing for the most exquisite pearl at the bottom of the sea.
Appropriately enough, it is a place in which you are almost led to believe that Germany is presiding over the international axis of cosmopolitan friendliness. But if German reality resembled a luxurious hotel, the country probably wouldn't need a multimillion dollar friendliness campaign in the first place.
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Advertising friendliness is not merely an exercise in wishful thinking. It is a way to encourage the German service industry to transform itself into an even more profitable bundle of joy. It is also a delicate attempt at "sensitizing the (German) population to their role as hosts," as Petra Hedorfer, president of the German Tourist Board said.
Aside from the fact that "sensitizing the population" unnecessarily makes the Germans sound autistic and pharmaceutically needy, the daunting task of the campaign is to dispel prejudices that foreigners living in the country have been accumulating about Germans -- too serious, obsessively disciplined and pretty much rude -- for centuries.
"My wife told me to start by not making a sinister face here," said German Minister for Economy and Technology Michael Glos.
Sporting mega events like the World Cup inspire the travel industry to see itself as a cross-cultural humanitarian relief project. Yet the bottom line remains: Wooing foreigners is tempting when one knows that they spend 27 billion euros a year in Germany. This is why Glos described the World Cup as "legal doping for tourism."
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Glos said the aim was not only to impress the up to three million people expected to come to Germany for the World Cup, but to encourage as many of them as possible to return in the future.
The German police has started giving 50,000 officers assigned to World Cup duties basic English courses to help them to communicate with fans. They are learning polite stock phrases like "It's a pleasure" and "You're welcome."
The tourism board has prepared customized packages for taxi companies, hotels, airports, stations, restaurants and travel agents to give them tips on how to deal with foreigners more impressively. The kits sell for 39 euros ($46) each and include stickers and posters that would designate that particular company as one trained in World Cup hospitality.
Fedor Radmann, tourism advisor for the World Cup organizing committee, said however, that the goal of the host country should not be to strive for perfection, but rather to surprise and delight the visitors.
"Somebody's experience of a country is not based on one incident, but on 10 small ones," he said. "So we have to surprise people. They do not think that Germans can do that."