The advertising poster is enjoying a multilingual limelight

(Das Werbeplakat in mehreren Sprachen)

The Blognosticator in Munich

I’m doing a casual study of what I call translingual advertisements here in Germany.

Germans are famous for being multilingual. They begin studying a second language in elementary school, and many students graduate from college speaking at least two languages other than German.

This poster, for a Russian vodka, features a headline in English, no German, and the label in Russian and English.

They are also required to take Latin – and a lot of it – while in school. American students have no such requirement. In fact I fear that studying any language other than English is rare now in American schools. The online language app Duolingo claims that it has more subscribers than America has students studying another language. This is a shame, because languages are so interesting, and they encourage social interaction.

When I ask a German if he/she speaks English, the answer is almost always “A little.” But, this modest response almost always means, “I only took six years of English in school,” – and then conversation continues in (excellent) English.

I polled my students recently about their language skills. Out of 16, all spoke German plus English (one spoke Portuguese and English). About half also speak French, and two spoke another language (one spoke Czech and Russian, the other spoke Italian).

This poster is for a bicycle delivery service – very popular in Munich. They deliver food to your apartment. In German the text says, “Purchases delivered in minutes.”

When I taught here in 2017, I needed a new modem for the Internet line coming into my apartment. I studied the dictionary for the right words, and built a sentence in German to describe what I sought. I practiced, and then I went downtown to the Saturn electronics store. When I approached a salesman and played-out my carefully-practiced sentence, he smiled, and then said, “Would you rather do this in English?” I was humiliated, but happy to continue in English.

This time, having been in Germany now for five months, I’m getting much better at constructing sentences in German, but I’m still slow to understand the answers I get. I often have to ask for the conversation to be continued in English. In my daily German lessons I have learned how to say, “My fish doesn’t need a chair,” among other very useful expressions.

Another lead in English promises fitness at 19,90 € per month (cancellable monthly).
No registration fee until January 11th – only from December 1st.

One of the most interesting manifestations of multilingualism in Munich is the use of English in retail advertising. I see English headlines on buses and trams, on kiosks and in the train station on automated billboards. The popular thing for advertisers to do is splash an English language headline on their poster, followed by details about the product/offer in German. I am often amused by the choice of phrases, because they require a reasonable understanding of English even to understand.

My favorite poster recently was an ad for a chocolate bar. It read “DARKER, RICHER, LECKER.” I liked this one because it required the reader to understand the first two words in English, and the third in German, which of course they would.

It translates in English to “Darker, Richer,” and then, in German, “Delicious.” This one was clever and amusing in both languages; in fact you don’t get it unless you understand both languages reasonably well.

When I see an advertisement that uses both languages, I stop and take a photo with my phone. They are everywhere, and they change often. One day I saw an ad for coffee featuring a photo of Leonardo di Caprio. I didn’t photograph it when I saw it, and just two days later it was gone, replaced by an ad for fancy Italian lingerie.

I am always rooting for the printing industry, and outdoor advertising is dominated by printed posters here in Munich (in Munich there are five daily newspapers!). With the exception of the fancy motor-driven signs at the central train station (these roll through different ads every few seconds), all of the posters I see are printed by offset lithography in sections. Those sections are then adhered to sign boards with wheat paste. At tram stops, single-sheet posters are mounted inside glass frames. The turnover is amazing; seldom does a poster last more than a few days.

And, curiously, I have not recently seen an ad being changed. I imagine a corps of midnight poster-pasters who move around the city in vans changing the advertisements. I did observe a poster-paster in 2017 when he was putting up ads in my neighborhood. I wrote a blog about that here.

During my current stay in Munich I have been observing the frequent changing-of-the-signs on trams, requiring very large and long poster art to be mounted on the tops of streetcars. I can’t get close enough to determine how they are printed. In the U.S., these would be printed by ink-jet, which is probably more expensive, but they would also stay on the trams longer. In Munich I think the life of a tram-ad campaign is probably only 30 days. How they are printed I cannot tell.

One thing that I don’t see here now that was fairly common in 2017 is the wrapping of regional trains. They were popular here during my previous stay, but I have seen none in my current stay. I think it’s too expensive to wrap a huge train car with beautiful ink-jet printed graphics. It was probably not a good way for advertisers to get their message across.

I know that wrapping an automobile in the U.S. costs over $5,000. Imagine the cost of wrapping a railroad car!

This ad poster, which would be highly offensive in the U.S., is entirely in English, for German readers.
Apologies for the quality of the photo. It’s impossible to get without the reflections because it is in a glass case.

Another poster I photographed last week broke the rules of public decency (for the U.S.). This one caught my eye as I rode by on a streetcar. I thought, “Did that say what I thought it said??” I returned to the scene a few hours later and photographed the poster to include in this blog. Obviously, most Germans know the meaning of the rude word on this poster, but it doesn’t bother them because it’s not in the local language. In America we would be offended by this poster – and it would never, ever, be posted in a public place.

I wonder if this poster had the same phrase in German (not exactly: “Ich fliege verdammt noch mal!”), the locals would be offended (I suspect not). I will poll my students on this topic next time I see them.

My study, meanwhile, will continue.

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and currently Guest Professor at Hochschule München. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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