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How Berlin got its omnipresent ad columns and why digital marketing can't topple them

You can't miss them in Berlin, and they dot urban hubs elsewhere, too. Ad columns have helped during war and defied digitalization. Their inventor, who was inspired by public toilets, would've turned 200 on February 11.

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Berlin's advertising columns

Germany's cityscapes wouldn't be quite the same without them, nor would the evolution of advertising. While they may seem trivial in our digital world, advertising columns are an immutable part of many urban environments, but of Berlin in particular.

It was in the German capital that the poster-plastered pillars were invented in 1854. In German, the advertising columns - known in the plural as Litfaßsäulen- are named for their inventor, Ernst Litfaß, who was born in Berlin 200 years ago, on February 11, 1816. (ß, by the way, is pronounced in German as a double s.)

While the German capital has survived two world wars and undergone dramatic changes since Litfaß's lifetime, over 3,100 traditional Litfaßsäulen still dot Berlin, much as they have for the last century and a half. Their likeness is found not only throughout Germany, but also abroad in cities like London and Paris.

Inventor found inspiration in a toilet

Ernst Litfaß was a successful printer and publisher who earned his fortune during the industrial revolution of the mid-19th century. The Litfaßsäule and the concept of public advertising behind it was inspired by a trip to Paris in 1843.

"He was completely taken by the advertising he saw there," Marlies Ebert, a historian with Berlin's City Museums, told DW. The somewhat unlikely source of his inspiration was a circular pissoir bedecked with advertisements.

Poster on an ad column in Berlin, 1967, advertising the Berlinale film festival

This ad column is announcing the 1967 Berlinale International Film Festival



Where others saw a public toilet, Litfaß saw an opportunity.

"In Berlin at the time, papers, signs and political announcements were stuck all over the place, on houses, on trees, on what have you," described the historian. "It looked completely unorganized." If necessity is the mother of invention, the need was certainly present.

Paris, on the other hand, would get its own version of the ad pillars in 1868. There, they are called "colonnes Morris," named for printer Gabriel Morris who implemented an idea similar to his German counterpart's.

Orderly Berlin: Rounding up rogue ads

Litfaß was a well-known do-gooder who threw parties for wounded soldiers, complete with free beer and fireworks displays, said Ebert. Although he may have liked a wild soirée, he detested Berlin's "wild advertisements," which he considered eyesores.

Fulfilling or perhaps contributing to Germany's stereotypical orderliness, Litfaß dreamed up a column that would not only round up rogue advertisements but profit from them, too.

"He made an agreement with the head of the Berlin police that said he had the right to put up columns and advertising," explained Marc Bieling, director of Die Draussenwerber, the advertising firm in charge of all Litfaßsäulen in Berlin.

"For example, if an opera company books a poster and pays for an ad, he would take the money and share it with the police department, which is the Berlin Senate today," continued Bieling. "The concept is basically the same everywhere in the world right now."

Initially, Litfaßsäulenwere used to advertise cultural events. To ensure that no wild ads were snuck into the mix and that all was hung in an orderly fashion, an inspector was tasked with giving the columns a daily once-over.

Ad column in front of the central train station in Erfurt, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Gerig

Not just Berlin: This ad column adorns the central train station in Erfurt



How an ad column can help during war

They took on a new role in 1870 when the Franco-German war broke out. Litfaß convinced the city leadership to hang the latest news from the front since those in central locations were ideal for spreading crucial information.

"People could gather and read the news much quicker than in newspapers, which took longer to be printed," said Ebert.

After the World War I and II, the columns were used to hang notices for missing persons and help-wanted ads for rubble clean up, among other public advertisements.

Today, once again, most Litfaßsäulen put the spotlight on concerts, performances and other events put on by the city's many cultural institutions, which constitute 80 percent of Die Draussenwerber's client base.

"If you're a theater, you probably have a limited media budget that you have to manage carefully," says Bieling. While advertising in a freestanding glass box costs an average of 20-24 euros per day (roughly $22-26), a normal square-meter poster is between one and two euros, making old-fashioned advertising anything but a thing of the past.

While it may seem that the world is increasingly going digital, reaching an audience on their smartphone, for example, is both expensive and difficult, says Bieling. He cites the cost of targeted marketing and ad-blocking technology that makes reaching users a challenge.

Reaching the broadest audience at once

Litfaßsäulen are uniquely spread throughout the city, from the busiest plazas to the most remote suburb. This gives them a wide reach that advertisers find appealing.

Theater an der Parkaue, a youth theater in Berlin, is currently using Litfaßsäulen to advertise upcoming performances of the play, "Moritz in the Litfaßsäule." Based on a children's novel by author Christa Kozik, the story follows the adventures of a young dreamer who runs away from his rule-bound family to make a new life for himself in none other than a Litfaßsäule.

Actor Jonas Lauenstein in the play Moritz in der Litfaßsäule, Copyright: Christian Brachwitz

A Berlin theater features a story about a boy who moves into an advertising column



"This was a content-appropriate opportunity to bring an advertising campaign to life," said Betty Riecke, a press representative for the troupe. "Since our regular venue is being renovated, and we are using the Prater (theater) for two years in the interim, we thought this would be the most effective way to advertise our new location throughout the city."

Although it may be cheaper than other forms of advertising, she adds that it is still a costly endeavour. "As a city youth theater, this campaign is definitely an exception and not the rule."

Similarly, last year, Berlin's Komische Oper, launched a citywide campaign to advertise "My Square Lady," a collaboration with performance group Gob Squad that went beyond their usual operatic offerings.

"Advertising on the columns allowed us to reach a different target group than usual," said Charlotte Jaquet of the opera's communications and marketing team. "While not everyone reads the paper or is an opera lover, everyone sees and knows Litfaßsäulen."

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