Germany's Covid-Heroes Video Campaign Hits the Right Note

Germans, and especially their government bureaucrats, are rarely accused of excessive recourse to humor. That makes Berlin’s official communication campaign against the coronavirus, launched over the weekend, all the more refreshing — and effective.

With good reason, the campaign targets young adults. After all, the best policy against the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is to get people to stay at home and away from others. And that applies most urgently to twentysomethings, who in Germany as elsewhere play a disproportionate role in contagion. Being younger, they’re less likely to show severe symptoms but more likely to bend the rules by socializing.

Millennials and Generation Z, however, communicate differently. Aesthetically and tonally, they’re more open to sardonic irony and self-referential “meta” memes and less tolerant of anything cloying or corny.

This explains the German government’s approach, as unveiled on Twitter by Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speaker. Conceived by a company that specializes in edgy content for young Germans, the campaign consists of an ongoing series of video clips, each between one and two minutes in length. It’s called #besonderehelden, or “special heroes.”

In the first clip we meet an elderly gentleman named Anton Lehmann. To dramatic background music that we’d normally expect in a history documentary with eyewitness accounts, he begins recalling that time long ago in the winter of 2020. Lehmann had just turned 22. He was studying engineering and loved partying and meeting friends. But then “the second wave came.” Suddenly, an “invisible danger threatened everything we believed in,” Lehmann recalls solemnly, and “the fate of our country was in our hands.” So he and his generation did the right thing.

Which was: Nothing. We flash back and see the young Lehmann vegetating on his couch, in various contortions of boredom and under the evident influence of junk food. “Our sofa was the front line,” Lehmann’s voiceover elaborates, and “our patience was our weapon.” So “we kept our asses at home” to fight the virus. And became heroes.

In a second video Lehmann is joined by his elderly wife, who also reminisces about that historic winter of 2020. Her flashbacks bring us to the young couple on their bed, unmade and full of crumbs, but also — as the violin soundtrack makes abundantly clear — humming with romantic tension. “Special times require special heroes,” she says with a smirk.

Is this satire? Parody? A moving appeal? Offensively flippant? The first job of any public information campaign is to be noticed rather than ignored. In that sense, this one was an immediate success. The controversy was instantaneous.

Many people didn’t get it. The videos, some objected, obviously address only those Millennials sufficiently well-off to be able to vegetate on their couches. The government should instead celebrate the real heroes, those who have no choice but to keep toiling even at risk of infection, like that pizza delivery woman who salutes the couch hero at the end of the first clip.

Others were more offended by the stylistic allusions to war documentaries and the use of terms like “front.” Given what the people normally interviewed in that genre suffered — or perpetrated — isn’t it unethical to make a coronavirus joke out of it?

To which one can only respond: Oh, please. There’s no contradiction between being humorous and moving at the same time, which these videos are. They’re not too heavy-handed and yet get the point across: We really are living at a historic moment, when we have a duty to do our part, when our private behavior may doom or save the lives of others.

Implicitly, the series acknowledges that there are generational tensions in this pandemic. The elderly are at greatest risk of dying from Covid-19, but Generation Y is suffering the biggest economic shock and Generation Z the worst epidemic of lockdown-induced depression and anxiety. And yet #besonderehelden transcends these divisions, both embracing the young and exhorting them to do the right thing for others.

As these campaigns go, this new German one certainly seems superior to the various clumsy attempts by the U.K., a nation Germans usually defer to in the deployment of humor. “Special heroes” doesn’t confuse, harangue or judge. Instead it gives us a philosophical wink: Sometimes the best thing, and the moral thing, really is spending a few months doing … nothing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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