“Mass and Class” – Advertising and Commercial Art in East Germany

Advertising in socialist East German – a contradiction in terms? Numerous examples and a new exhibition in Berlin show that you’d be wrong to think that. Although less ubiquitous and in-your-face than in the capitalist West, product advertising – on advertising columns or broadcast during radio and television programmes – was a common feature of everyday life under “actually existing socialism”. In spite of the restrictions imposed on them by economic scarcity and politically motivated censorship, clever copywriters and graphic designers managed to create innovative posters and attractive packaging. In fact, many of their designs were feted even in western countries. While western colleagues were faced with the challenge of having to outdo the competition by creating ever-more provocative and exotic designs to catch the attention of consumers, East German advertisers used a less strident approach aimed at educating buyers and helping shops to get rid of old stock and mitigate the effects of overproduction.

The Rise of Advertising – from Pointless to Ubiquitous

In 1954, the GDR even launched a specialist journal dedicated to advertising. Published once a month with a print run of 17,000 copies, Die Neue Werbung featured articles on advertising, commercial art, photography, book and poster art and other topics. The journal’s success was all the more remarkable considering that the East German leadership had previously considered product advertising a “pointless” waste of resources. The GDR changed its tune in the mid-1950’s, resulting in a veritable flood of advertising by Eastern standards.

Product packaging also played an important part in the rise of advertising. The Florena cosmetics brand can still be found in German supermarkets today – and still uses an advertising slogan from the 1960’s, when the distinctive blue and white tub of Florena moisturiser was first launched. (Its similarity with the colour scheme used for the Western brand Nivea is almost equally remarkable.)

The Lasting Appeal of East German Design

Florena is not the only example of East German commercial art to have survived the Fall of the Wall and reunification. Many other products are still available in their original packaging and design, and some have even been resuscitated more recently. In many cases, their distinctive look is a huge part of the appeal of these products. If your curiosity about East German advertising, design and commercial art has been piqued, don’t forget to check out the exhibits on show at the Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge (Oranienstraße 25 in Kreuzberg) until 3 July. The special exhibition will be accompanied by an extensive programme of lectures, panel events and discussions. Workshops for children, young people and families on packaging, magazine design, and children’s book illustration will offer visitors an opportunity to see a different side of East Germany’s aesthetic culture. As this exhibition abundantly proves, East German advertising and commercial art was far more than a poor imitation of western role models!