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Berlin CNN —  

Public awareness campaigns launched by governments are usually anodyne affairs. Not in Germany, where officials have managed to spark a number of controversies during the pandemic in their push to keep the public safe.

From spending millions on videos deemed insensitive, commissioning an alleged Hamas supporter to promote the vaccine for the country’s Arabic-speaking population to getting “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff to promote the jab while millions of people are still waiting desperately. The government is facing some heat for its absurd approach on the public awareness campaigns.

The debate about their advertising strategy began back in last November, when the federal government released a trilogy of tongue-in-cheek videos using the hashtag #besondereHelden, which means “special heroes.” The clips portrayed war heroes from the future, who “fought” against the spread of Covid-19 when they were young by being couch potatoes.

The aim of the videos was to address young people who are normally hard to reach using conventional government communication, Steffen Seibert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson, said on November 16. He explained that young people played an important role in controlling the pandemic therefore the government’s “unusual approach is justified.”

A vaccine campaign poster hangs at Berlin Cathedral in March. The government is facing some heat for its absurd approach on the public awareness campaigns.
Maja Hitij/Getty Images
A vaccine campaign poster hangs at Berlin Cathedral in March. The government is facing some heat for its absurd approach on the public awareness campaigns.

The clips were a hit, with many praising their humorous take, including the comedian Jan Boehmermann, who tweeted: “On the 14th of November humour has reached Germany’s government communication.”

But at the same time the trilogy was criticized sharply on Twitter for its light-hearted tone during a time of national crisis and severe loss of life as Germany lost nearly 90.000 people to the coronavirus. Additionally they found the videos insensitive to many people who did not have the privilege of being lazy in the pandemic: such as essential businesses personnel, health care workers and service staff.

“While the plea of staying home and reducing contacts is a serious one, it is conveyed ironically,” Seibert maintained.

But “nowadays irony doesn’t work as well with people anymore,” Joachim Trebbe, a media and communications studies professor at the Free University of Berlin, told CNN.

Apart from the amount of wit being debated, the question of budget was also a point of contention. According to the federal government, $386,887 in taxpayer funds was used to produce the videos and $2,138,159 were used on advertisement and distribution measures.

Now that the third wave is broken and infection numbers have fallen drastically, promoting the country’s vaccination campaign is at the top of the government’s agenda. As of Saturday, 25.7% of the German population are fully vaccinated and 48,1% have received their first shot, according to health ministry figures.

Another problematic episode of Germany’s pandemic communication unfolded on June 8 when a Berlin-based doctor, Najeeb Al-Saidi, was found to have posted anti-Semitic content on Facebook in May. He was commissioned by the German government to promote vaccinations among the country’s Arabic-speaking population. Al-Saidi and the government both declined to comment to CNN.

“The two most problematic posts were a demand for all Zionists, meaning Jews, to leave Israel and another one praising the militant branch of the terrorist organisation Hamas, the Al-Qassam-Brigade.” Filipp Piatov, head of opinion at BILD, the German tabloid which first reported on the incident, told CNN.

The German government took the video down after the discovery went public. Merkel’s spokesperson Seibert told a press conference this week that he deeply regretted “we did not conduct the necessary background checks in time.”

“When we put the video up on the internet we weren’t aware of the details,” he added, but critics like Piatov say the due diligence only required “a simple Facebook search that only took a few seconds.”

The latest campaign was the Hasselhoff video, which was shared by the country’s health ministry on Twitter, where the star urged Germans to get vaccinated saying: “I found freedom with vaccination. You can too!”

This was part of the government’s #ÄrmelHoch campaign, meaning “sleeves up,” in which numerous German celebrities promote vaccination. It aims at “reaching a broad part of the population and motivating them to get the vaccine,” according to the health ministry.

After one irrate Twitter user asked for the same amount of money that Hasselhoff received for the videos, health officials added that the American star did not “receive any payment for his performance. He contributed to the campaign with his message because of conviction.”

But the performance was mostly mocked and criticized in Germany, with people pointing out that vaccines aren’t available to large parts of the population due to supply issues. Even though everyone over the age of 12 can now make a vaccination appointment in Germany, there are insufficient vaccines to cover the entire population.

“Testimonials like this one have positive effects on people’s behavior. But it came too early and they advertised something that wasn’t yet available,” Trebbe said.

The willingness to get vaccinated is “very high” among Germans, according to Lothar Wieler, Head of the Robert-Koch-Institute, the country’s infectious disease agency. He said during a May press conference that “73% of those polled declared they’ll definitely get vaccinated and another 10% want to be vaccinated than not.” That figure is not as high as in the UK though, where according to latest data, 93% of adults reported positive vaccine sentiments.

In one key regard the German campaign was a success: it got publicity, but at the cost of mockery, criticism and embarrassment. Many in the country are now wondering what their government will come up with next in their bid to keep people safe.