the curious appeal of election posters

Election posters. There’s something fascinating about them. Unlike social media campaigns, they don’t depend on algorithms and echo chambers — they’re for absolutely anyone who happens to pass by. And ahead of any election in Germany, posters adorn every railing and ascend every lamppost (often stacked four or five high). For a few weeks, they transform public spaces and vie for our attention. But they are also ephemeral in nature; a mere snapshot of the issues and candidates in a particular election, in a given setting. As soon as the election is over, they’re obsolete. They disappear. Some, possibly torn down in anger, never even make it to election day.

My fascination with election posters also has very personal roots. Many years ago, on a square in Heidelberg, I spotted a poster for the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism, now Die Linke — the Left Party).  That poster sparked my curiosity (who in Heidelberg voted for the party?) and set me on a research path that would lead through the PhD and beyond. Over the years, I’ve analysed the Left Party’s policies, campaigns, successes and failures; an eventful story, colourfully illustrated by a succession of election posters. For me, it’s intriguing to recognise change in electoral goals and strategy reflected in the posters. In 2019, for instance, the Left Party in Bremen aimed to join the regional governing coalition for the first time. It signalled this intent by abandoning the strident visual style and demands of previous campaigns in favour of sincere promises and a more harmonious image, often centred on the lead candidate — a campaign more befitting of a trustworthy, competent, office-seeking party.  

Two Left Party election posters campaigning for affordable housing, Bremen 2015 and 2019.
Posters from two regional elections in Bremen. Left: 2015. The poster states the problem (‘rent explosion’) and demands action from the government (‘build affordable housing!)’. Right: 2019. The issue is the same (‘housing must be affordable’) but note the friendlier, more relatable imagery. Humour replaces ‘shouty’ exclamation marks. Most importantly, the party now promises to step up and take action (‘we’ll do it’) to deliver affordable homes. A clear indication of the party’s explicit goal to enter government.

Another interesting thing about posters is seeing how a sort of dialogue can develop. One party puts up its poster, then a competing poster appears, critiquing the rival candidate and party. The public too, sharpies at the ready, sometimes respond with comments (political, pejorative, random) or the standard repertoire of scribbled glasses, blacked out teeth and ‘artistic’ embellishments*. Occasionally, someone takes issue with, and replies to, an existing scrawled comment. One of most heated discussions I ever saw was on an FDP poster: ‘Parking spaces don’t grow on trees — we build them’. I like to imagine someone seeing the poster while waiting for a bus and indignantly commenting on the slogan (well, it’d be hard not to…), then someone else, perhaps out walking the dog, adding their rejoinder. But not everyone is up for a discussion. The far-right AfD is clearly reluctant to enter into any kind of dialogue, even with other placards, and tends to place its posters at the very top of lampposts. At the extremity, so to speak.

Two posters in a mayoral election campaign. The bottom poster parodies the top one.

Mayoral elections took place here in Heidelberg last November. By no means a huge event in Germany’s political calendar, but the city still saw a brief flurry of placards. Hurrah! Posters for the incumbent mayor (the eventual winner) all showed him smiling broadly on boats and in cafés, but there was no mention of policy, or even a single achievement — just a slogan: ‘Your Heidelberg. Your choice’. Shortly before election day, Die PARTEI (The Party, founded as a satirical party) entered the conversation by placing their own posters directly below. These parodied the imagery of the incumbent’s campaign with a similar-style, grinning photo and mocked the slogan with the response ‘His Heidelberg? Your fault!’. The posters were amusing, but also called out apathy, a lack of change and an absence of meaningful content.   

Sometimes an election poster stops me dead in my tracks because of its awfulness. The FDP’s ‘car parks’, for example, or the dog-whistling of far right parties, even from the top of a pole. Other times, though, a poster (or a comment on it) makes me stop and smile or laugh. So to round off, here are two more posters from Die PARTEI. These were placed next to each other last November. Of course, they’re an obvious nod to the party’s own satirical origins. But what do they say they about the state of politics and political debate…? Another thing I really like is that they’re happy to start up their own argument, just between themselves, and leave the rest of us wondering.

More elections are taking place across Germany this year. I’ll be following the campaigns and electoral fates of the parties — especially the Left Party, of course. But my inner nerd will also be looking with intrigue (possibly indignation — or maybe amusement?) at the mosaics of rival posters set to bedeck our bus stops, squares and lamp posts. 

Two election posters. L: 'Politics not satire'. R: 'Satire not politics'.
Politics not satire… or maybe not?

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* However, as the placards belong to the respective parties, permanently altering their appearance with comments and drawings counts as wilful damage to property and can incur a fine.  

Image credits: Featured image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay. Bremen election placards: DIE LINKE Bremen. Heidelberg posters: own photos.

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