(CN) — It’s the middle finger seen around Europe.
This middle finger belongs to a well-dressed, grey-haired elderly Berliner woman looking at you alertly, even angrily. Her mouth and nose are covered with a floral-patterned mask and she’s flipping you off for not wearing a mask.
This week, Berlin’s city government caused a stir by using this in-your-face, rude and unconventional image for an advertising campaign telling people to wear a mask and obey coronavirus rules. Masks became mandatory in Berlin at the beginning of October.
Berlin, a famously irreverent city, is becoming a coronavirus hot spot in Europe and it has also been the scene of anti-mask protests, including one in September that saw far-right groups storm the Reichstag parliament building.
“The raised index finger for everyone without a mask,” the ad reads, delicately misdescribing the digit the woman is holding up in the photo. Underneath in smaller letters it reads: “We adhere to the corona rules.”
The ad showed up in German newspapers on Tuesday and immediately caused controversy. Conservative politicians called it out of order and accused the city’s left-wing government of insulting Berliners.
By Thursday, the ad had been pulled, though not before it had garnered a lot of press in Europe and spread across social media drawing both praise and criticism.
“This is how our authorities inform about using a mask. Typical Berlin. I love it,” said one Twitter user. Another said: “As a person in high risk group, I fully agree.”
Another Twitter user called it an offensive wrong-headed message that will backfire by trying to bully people into wearing a mask: “If you ask me – someone who’s written his PhD on the topic – this is the worst example of science communication and public understanding of science-based policy.”
This isn’t the first time city agencies have tried to get a message across to Berlin’s citizens with sardonic messages.
But this time apparently the PR message went too far. Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, said the campaign was embarrassing and he laid the blame for it on the tourism agency.
The tourism authority, Visit Berlin, came up with the ad to highlight that older people are more vulnerable to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Christian Tänzler, a spokesman for Visit Berlin, told Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster, that the “provocative image” was meant to be a way to connect to Berlin’s dry sense of humor. He said the campaign would continue but that the image would be dropped. A prior campaign ad read: “Mask on. To keep the lights from going off.”
Marcel Luthe, a member of the Berlin Senate, the city’s executive body, made a formal complaint to the police and accused the tourism agency of inciting hatred against people who can’t wear masks such as children and people with health problems that prevent them from wearing masks, DW reported.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.