The Germans and their sofas

Germans on the Couch – An Insight into the German Living Room

Cremefarbene Lichtschalter; Copyright: JVMGermany´s typical living room; Copyright: JVMWicked tongues claim that German living rooms are still a bastion of “Gelsenkirchen Baroque” – with its weighty wall units, a cumbersome though comfortable three-piece suite and a coffee table in dark oak veneer. Not true, say the advertising experts. And they should know – for they look into people’s hearts and minds, and that leads them through their living rooms.

Knowledge and prejudice

To create an image, advertising experts need a great deal of background knowledge. These are just some of the questions they might ask: “How do the people in the target group for this product actually think? What are their hopes and dreams? Indeed, how do they live?” Hamburg-based ad agency Jung von Matt (JvM) was determined to find out. Its staff ventured into people's homes and analysed all that they found there. As a result, they have reconstructed the typical German living room.

The research process was no easy task. JvM’s young staff had to collect data, work out statistics and study birth and name registers to reconstruct German reality. What types of households are typical? Do people live with a partner or a child? If so, how many? Do they live alone? Are they wealthy? Are they old or young? What are the most common names? Schmidt, Meier or Kowalski? Lukas, Alexander or Siegfried? Isolde, Emma or Angela? What do they like to read, play, watch on TV or listen to on the radio? And what do they eat while doing so? More and more questions arose, and if the statistics didn’t help, the team had to ask people in person – in surveys, discussion groups, cooking evenings, home visits or even with a hidden camera. The trend researchers were determined to find out what makes the Germans tick and how they live, what they prefer to sweep under the carpet – and where and why they bought the carpet in the first place.

At home with the Müllers

Like the Müllers, most Germans have a coffee table and/or a side table in their living rooms. Copyright: JVMHaving gathered all the data, the researchers reconstructed the “typical” German living room at JvM HQ in Hamburg. They even “created” a family to live there. The average German is 40 years old and lives in rented accommodation, with around 90 square m of space. In JvM’s mock-up, the father is called Thomas, while the lady of the house is Sabine (the most common woman’s name in Germany). They have one son, Alexander. The focal point of their lives is the living room, furnished with the obligatory three-piece suite in warm, light, natural colours and a small side table. The heavy “Gelsenkirchen Baroque” has fallen out of favour; today, there is a preference for light, open structures made of wood or other similar material. The average German family likes to have leafy plants in the living room – preferably ivy and Alpine violet. A pleasantly soft velour fitted carpet, in a muted blue and keenly priced, provides comfort underfoot. It’s kind to the pocket as well as the feet, and testifies to the pragmatic approach which says that there’s no point in spending a lot in rented accommodation. This view is also reflected in the family’s habit of wearing their street shoes inside – even in the bedroom. There is the usual woodchip paper on the walls which, once classic white, have now been repainted in softer pastel shades. It’s the mother, Sabine Müller, who adds the final touches, from vases to cushions. At the most, Thomas and Alexander provide a model car or a bit of football memorabilia to brighten things up. A TV and video recorder, which is gradually being replaced by a DVD player, and a socket for cable TV and telephone comprise the technical equipment. We all recognise it: every German instantly feels at home here.

What does this tell us?

Cream-coloured light switch; Copyright: JVM Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder admits to having the same light switches in his house as in the Müllers’ reconstructed living room in Hamburg. And that’s hardly surprising – for it is the most popular type on the market, so why shouldn’t the Schröders have them too? But does this tell the ad agency staff what they are thinking, or simply how they switch their lights on? But they are certainly not in the dark: on the contrary, they feel very close to their subjects when they visit the living room. “We wanted to get very close to the living environment and consumer preferences of our target group on a daily basis. And we wanted to make it a tangible and accessible reality for all the agency’s staff, clients and guests”, according to the agency’s website, where the German living room can be inspected in detail.

They have been maintaining it for several years, and have “been growing with and through our living room. By looking after it and constantly updating it, we are in an ongoing process of target group research”. And the target group learns something as well – for after all, JvM evaluates the facts and data in a far more entertaining and illuminating way than the microcensus undertaken by the Federal Statistical Office. The living room illustrates the statistics in their most tangible form, both physically and online. The evidence is there for everyone to see: Germans live as married couples with one child. In JvM’s recreated living room in Hamburg, they are named Thomas, Sabine and Alexander, although Alexander should really be called Alexandra, for statistics show that more girls are born in Germany than boys. But this makes little difference to the typical German microcosm, which can be found in flats like this, mainly in North Rhine-Westphalia and especially around Cologne. This would bring us to the German macrocosm, but even this tends to the “micro” level, for there are very few international influences here: Germans use their own cars to go on holiday, preferably to the Baltic Sea or Bavaria, they read a regional newspaper, always buy their groceries at the same discount outlet, purchase their clothes from the usual department stores, and love spending their time with their family. And as the ad agency staff found out, “they’re generally fairly contented”.

And that makes things more complicated than they might at first appear: for how do you create new needs in a group of people who are generally quite content? For the marketing industry, that’s a trade secret – just like the contents of the wall units. These hold all the personal items that are important to their owners – and that’s not just typically German.

Christine Sommer-Guist
journalist and writer, specialises in environment and social affairs

Translation: Hillary Crowe
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
November 2007

Related links

Weblog: Rory’s Berlin-Blog

Rory MacLean Weblog
Settling in Berlin: Travelwriter Rory MacLean gives an amusing and insightful account of his new home.

Weblog: “Meet in Finland”

Unter „Meet in Finland" können Sie lesen, was Autoren und Künstler, die auf Einladung des Goethe-Instituts eine längere Zeit in Finnland verbringen, hier erleben.