By: Geeta Dayal | December 8, 2009
Last week, Swiss citizens voted to ban the construction of minarets, the distinctive towers adorning mosques, in a nationwide referendum. The ban, which won by a 58 percent majority vote, sent shock waves across the world. The move, which was widely interpreted as a backlash against Islamic practice, caused an uproar in the international media. The United Nations, Amnesty International, and the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance all issued statements denouncing the decision. An extended segment on The Daily Show last week lampooned the ban.
The defining symbol of the campaign, led by the conservative Swiss People’s Party, was a poster sporting rows of ominous, missile-shaped minarets on top of the Swiss flag, with a dark, burka-clad woman in the foreground. Thousands of these posters were plastered throughout Switzerland encouraging citizens to support the ban. Some Swiss towns, including Basel and Lausanne, banned the poster. But many other cities, like Zurich, allowed the posters to remain on streets, train stations, and other public spaces, as a matter of free speech.
This now-infamous “Stopp” poster was designed by Werbeagentur Goal, a Swiss company that has created several xenophobic posters in the past. The poster is but the latest in a long line of campaigns, all employing a similar design aesthetic. Another loaded poster, issued by Goal in 2007, portrayed a group of white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag.
“The Swiss People’s Party is never afraid of using very strong, racist images to give its opinion,” says Bettina Richter, curator of the poster collection at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich. “It’s always the same advertising agency, so the design is well-known and recognizable. The popular comic style functions very well; everybody can understand the message, and the illustrations of the poster differ from the photo aesthetics of commercial posters so the poster immediately attracts attention. The design is very terse and strong, the colors are limited and powerful. The poster is, at the same time, very aggressive and very emotional.”
The image also plays on the memories of older Swiss citizens. “The layout is always the same,” says Thomas Rüst, a Swiss radio journalist in Zurich who voted against the minaret ban. “It reminds older citizens of the 30s, when Switzerland fought a huge propaganda war against Nazi Germany. It’s always the same graphic pattern, be it in Zurich, in local referendums, or nationally.”
The “Stopp” poster also provoked several “answer” posters. And though none were as successful, citizens and rival parties generated their own posters across Switzerland, many of them playing on the design of the original.
The outcry over the ban on minarets hid a larger and even more worrisome referendum—a vote on the export of war materials from Switzerland to other countries. The Alternative Liste, a left-wing party in Switzerland, used the design of the original poster to make this cartoon to encourage voters to ban all military exports to countries at war or with unrest. “Very few [Stopp] posters had been vandalized,” says Rüst. “But they were hijacked by another referendum committee—they copied the layout, but instead of minarets they put deadly rockets.” The poster simultaneously parodies the original poster and issues a forceful statement. The ban on exports, however, did not pass.
This distinctive poster, created by the Swiss designer Frank Bodin, reads, “The heavens over Switzerland are big enough. No to intolerance. No to the minaret ban initiative.” Richter likes the idea to answer aggressiveness with poetry. “The photo is original, compared with the banal photographic aesthetic in commercial posters. So it attracts attention in a public space. The colors are very special, too. The text is integrated in an unobtrusive way; it’s the image which communicates.”
“Equal Rights for All: No to the Minaret Initiative,” reads this well-designed poster, which combines a striking image with good typography. But does it appeal to a majority? “The poster attracts attention,” says Richter. “But, in my opinion, this poster is a typical example of poster design for an intellectual minority. The concentration of the whole message—which is necessary in mass media—in the symbol of a fork will not be understood by the majority.”
This poster, which reads “Stop the Madness: Vote No,” portrays major religious monuments with their defining towers missing. The poster uses iconic Christian images to illustrate its point; at the center of the poster is the outline of Christ the Redeemer, the famous statue of Jesus perched over Rio de Janeiro. “It’s a good idea, in my opinion, to speak to the emotions of people by telling them what it means to their own culture and religion when all church towers would be removed,” comments Richter. “But the design of the poster is not very convincing. Content and form have to go together to make a good design. It’s not a powerful translation of the idea.”
This poster, issued by the Society of Minorities in Switzerland, reads: “Countries where religious freedom is restricted: Don’t let it get this far! Yes to religious freedom. No to the minaret ban initiative.” Richter says the different flags function well because they directly attack the self-image of Switzerland in a sensitive way. “So it’s also very emotional. It’s a simple idea, limited in design.”
All of these posters had good intentions, but none of them had the reach or impact of the original poster advocating a ban on minarets. “Posters for votes have to function in an actual situation, in the moment,” says Richter. “They must be understood immediately. That’s the problem communicating for different positions. Voting against the ban means voting for tolerance, for the freedom of religion, for different cultures living together. Such peaceful ideas are not easy to communicate in a good and convincing new way. But at the same time, it would be a contradiction to use the same aggressive ‘language’ of the opposing party, an
d also a danger to enter into useless polemic.”