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The Language of the Sale

Jane PaulickNovember 16, 2007

After years peddling anglicisms, German advertisers have rediscovered their own language. If the advertising industry is a barometer of the zeitgeist, what does this say about the state of the nation?

Chinese passers-by walk past a billboard of Adidas with portrait of David Beckham on Wanfujing Street in Beijing.
What?Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

From Vodafone's "Make the Most of Now" to Siemens' "Be Inspired," the lingua franca of cutting-edge advertising has long been English, and Germany is no exception. But for a variety of reasons, companies across the board have recently been switching back to German, reflecting both a burgeoning cultural self-confidence and a growing desire to slam the brakes on the rapid spread of "Denglish," as anglicized German has been dubbed.

Examples include retailer C&A, which replaced "Fashion For Living" with "Preise Gut, Alles Gut" (The Price Is Right, Everything Is Right) and McDonalds, whose advertising campaign morphed from "Every Time a Good Time" into "Ich Liebe Es" (I'm Lovin' It).

One reason for this shift is purely practical. While even native speakers struggle with the double negatives of Adidas' promise that "Impossible is Nothing," a study commissioned last year by advertising agency Endmark revealed that Germans respond to most English-language claims with sheer bewilderment.

Faced with a dozen Anglicisms, only one-third of those questioned in the survey actually knew what the slogans meant. Few grasped the point of "Come In and Find Out," the ubiquitous promotion for the Douglas cosmetics chain. Most consumers, it emerged, thought they were being invited to enter a store and then find the nearest exit.

Jaguar's "Life By Gorgeous" campaign left participants equally bemused, with many laboring under the impression the advertisement was showcasing good times in Georgia. Private TV station Sat1's slogan "Powered by Emotion" must have seemed extremely out of place as most people translated it into German as "Kraft Durch Freude" or "Strength Through Joy" -- a favorite motto of Hitler's.

Perhaps not suprisingly, the offending claims have since been replaced by German ones.

Sowing the deliberate seeds of confusion

The Sat1 Logo: Sat1 Zeigt's Allen
The new Sat1 logoImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

According to a recent study carried out by Slogans.de, an internet portal for research into advertising, the trend this year has consequently been to more German slogans and fewer Anglicisms, with the share of English-language claims slipping down to 18.7 percent compared to 30 percent six years ago.

Inga Wermuth, founder of Slogans.de and owner of the Hamburg-based advertising agency Satelliten Media Design, said in the past, using English was an easy way to sex up a product -- and that an element of linguistic confusion was all part of the strategy.

"Some brands consciously play with this lack of understanding," she said. "The exoticism of a foreign language makes a product seem complex and innovative."

Ad man Sebastian Turner from the Scholz & Friends agency, one of the top creative addresses in Germany, agreed that obfuscation is key.

A Douglas store
One Douglas ad campaign left consumers wondering where the exits wereImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"When the point is to convey a certain feeling, then precision, function and clarity become secondary," he said. "Agencies will then simply use words that best convey this emotion."

Positioning Germany on the world stage is another factor, Turner said.

"Tourists don't necessarily understand German, whereas English is more international," he said. "An English word can provide a better projection surface."

But according to Walter Krämer, chairman of the German Language Association, using English as a way to boost an image -- turning a corner snack bar into a "City-Grill," for example -- is typical of the contemporary habit of watering down the German language.

This is symptomatic of Germany's cultural insecurity, he argues, and also a snub to other cultures.

"The German fondness for all things American is also an aversion to other nations and cultures," the association's Web site says.

A shift in values

Xavier Naidoo
Xavier Naidoo became a music star singing in GermanImage: AP

Now, however, German appears to be making a come-back -- and the sea-change could well mean nothing less than a new sense of national pride.

"Companies have realized that people don't understand their claims," Krämer said. "They also realize that English no longer represents higher standards, but, thanks to George Bush, lower standards -- just as polls in Germany show that Americans are increasingly less popular."

Wermuth also said she feels that the fact German ads are less inclined to use English is a response to globalization.

"This return to the German language is rooted in the fear that, in the long run, it may be taken over by foreign influences," she said. "In recent years, our identity has become ever less rooted in traditional, regional and family values. Consequently, there is a growing desire to explore our identity. These days, the German language appeals more to our emotions because it speaks to our roots."

She pointed out that German-language pop music has seen a similar development.

"In the past, German artists didn't stand a chance if they sang in German," she said. "But in the late 1990s, performers such as Rosenstolz, Die Fantastischen Vier, Juli and Xavier Naidoo began conveying different values with their lyrics and stormed the charts. Similarly, advertising slogans in German come across as more honest, and people feel better able to assess their message."