Scaremongering political advertising defines bailout fight between Germany and Greece

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These are mad days in Europe, and the Mad Men may be making them worse.

While Greeks voted against austerity, and while they fight to stay in the eurozone, confusing political advertising has swept the country with such force that you might think an apocalypse was imminent. At the same time, Germany is swept with ads fueling panic and portraying Greeks as lazy and looking for handouts from German savings.

The advertising wave started the days before July 5th, when Greece overwhelmingly opted not to make the government spending cuts its creditors demanded. The following few days were a perfect example of how ads are assaulting the debt-wracked country as it faces an uncertain future.

The swirling fears around the decision were heightened by bleak ads that forebode empty ATMs, medicine shortages and even the collapse of democracy as a whole. The campaigns were spread across television, newspaper pages, social media and posters on city streets, bankrolled by political parties and interest groups from far-flung parts of the political spectrum.

Each side seemed to cast an equally dismal eye to the future should Greeks choose the wrong path, and positive messages were rare, according to Stylianos Papathanassopoulos, a media studies professor at National & Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Far-left party Syriza centered its campaign on national “dignity” and fear of “democracy’s demise,” massaging tensions cut along nationalistic lines, he said.

Meanwhile, conservative and center-leaning groups appealed to Greek pride, but punctuated the message with the specter of government default and relentless smears aimed at Tsipras and his party.

“Against that background, all scare tactics seem to be a better solution and means of manipulation than positive advertisements,” Papathanassopoulos said in an email.

Along the way, emotion and fear-mongering predictably parted ways with the prosaic hard facts of the matter. That has contributed to widespread confusion in Europe — particularly in Germany and Greece — about what it is, exactly, they are fighting about.

“[Some ads] misinterpreted the basic notion and subject-matter of the referendum,” Papathanassopoulos said. “[It] was a sentimental and ‘phenomenological approach’ towards a serious political question that was never actually explained to the voters.”

Not that the Greek people need more cause to panic. The weight of Sunday’s choice was manifest in long ATM lines, tearful retirees and a climbing suicide rate. Even after many Greeks celebrated the referendum result in the streets, the banks remain closed, and uncertainty reigns as the country barrels toward this Sunday’s deadline to decide whether it will remain in the Eurozone.

The massive amount of foreign media attention zeroed in on the country’s plight even further feeds the alarm, especially that of Greece’s biggest creditor Germany.

The German tabloid Bild has aimed a flurry of attacks at the liberal Syriza supporters, at one point holding a mock “referendum” with loaded language that painted Greece as a leech on Germany’s finances. That nine out of ten of its readers voted to cut off support to the ailing state reflects that the newspaper is not out of line with German public attitudes.

In another instance, the newspaper posted a video of Greeks admitting they were confused by the referendum’s terms.

Outside Germany, the caustic approach drew a fair dose of criticism from those who thought that it was poor form to mock the suffering of another country.

“I never thought I would witness a German news organisation being that dishonourable and reckless in face of another nation’s suffering,” Guardian director of digital strategy Wolfgang Blau wrote in a public Facebook post.

A report from German newspaper The Local suggests that many other German media outlets have treated the issue with the same crusading tilt.

“The continuous bad images in the foreign media makes [Greeks] feel defensive,” Papathanassopoulos said.

But at home in Greece, many say the private mainstream media hasn’t been much more charitable to those who are fed up with Greece’s lenders reigning in social services. Critics said private TV channels and newspapers devoted an inordinate amount of time and space to airing the grievances of “yes”-leaning experts and rallies compared to the stunted coverage of the “no” side.

Tsipras, who adopted a sometimes scathing rhetoric in his quest to quash the referendum, criticized the perceived media leanings in a televised interview last week, according to the New York Times. He couched the indictment in a figure showing that the six main stations in Greece had given about eight minutes to a “no” rally and 46 minutes to a “yes” rally.

Some of the slant may have to do with tensions between Greek media owners and Tsipras’ administration, according to Kostas Lavdas, a political science professor at the University of Crete, who studies European interest groups.

He said in an email that the Greek government has worked “energetically” to suppress private media, and in some cases, there are business rifts over the public contracts required for media need to stay on air that come with government fees.

As made apparent by the vote turnout, popular opinion is at odds with the perceived bias. The result is that many Greeks are left disillusioned with media both at home and abroad, while confusion over the hard facts of the plight abounds, Papathanassopoulos said.

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