Monday September 4, 2006
Pope Takes Cue from World Cup
By Alexander Linden and Peter Wensierski
[Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan]
As the pope prepares for his upcoming visit to Bavaria, the Vatican has embarked on an unprecedented campaign to market the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. By selling official fan paraphernalia, the church plans to turn a profit from the hype surrounding Pope Benedict XVI.
The "Hutkönig," or "King of Hats," has been in its location across from the cathedral in the southern German city of Regensburg for five generations. The time-honored hat making business, where good taste is de rigueur, has counted royal and princely families among its clientele. But this year "Hutkönig" appears to be making a small exception to its traditional fare. Its latest model, the "Benedict," has been on display in the shop's window for the past few days. The creation, in the style of a Don Camillo hat, is available in five versions. The most exclusive -- in rabbit fur felt with a red velour hatband -- is priced at a steep €598.
DDP: Kitschtastic: The Catholic Church has taken lessons from FIFA in its marketing of the pope's visit to Germany
The countdown is on in Bavaria, in the city of Regensburg and in towns like Marktl and Altötting, as the region prepares for an official visit by Pope Benedict XVI to his homeland, Sept. 8-14. For weeks now, the Holy Father seems to have become everyone's excuse to turn a very worldly profit. The souvenir items run the gamut from fashion (a Ratzinger hat), to food (the Ratzi bratwurst), to alcoholic beverages (Benedict Beer) to china (Ratzinger teacups). Someone has even come up with the idea of an eraser bearing the pope's likeness. It's called the "Ratzefummel." Bavaria's tourism and marketing bureau is already enthusing over the economic boost it hopes the visit will bring to the region, thanks to the crowds of pilgrims and tourists expected to descend on Bavarian churches and monasteries -- and thanks to the global media exposure the visit will bring to Bavaria.
And as if Ratzinger's divine boss -- Jesus Christ -- had never banished the merchants from the temple, the Catholic Church has its own fingers in the moneymaking pie. Like FIFA, the world football federation, the church holds a dim view of brand name pirates. The Regensburg clergy has chosen one company, Sixsigma, as its official marketer of Benedict mementoes during the pope's visit to Bavaria. The church plans to use the expected proceeds, estimated at €20 million, to help pay for the papal visit.
Much like Adidas was an official partner of the football World Cup, Sixsigma is the Diocese of Regensburg's merchandising partner for the pope's visit. And while the church remains somewhat behind the times when it comes to family issues, it has opted for state-of-the-art distribution channels to collect its share of the spoils. Anyone interested in papal souvenirs simply only has to click on www.willkommen-benedikt.de on the Internet to deposit his favorite items from the Holy See's collection into the site's virtual shopping cart.
Until a few weeks ago, Sixsigma managing director Jürgen Wittmann's claim to fame in the region was as an event planner and lighting consultant. In explaining the marketing of the Lord, Wittmann has chosen a linguistic mix of advertising and church lingo: "We will only use key visuals that the church considers tasteful." He eloquently explains that the religion he is marketing should be one that everyone can grasp, quite literally.
Unlike many ordinary vendors, Wittmann has the full support of Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, head of the Regensburg diocese. The guardian of Ratzi's marketing rights explains that the officially sanctioned articles are not just souvenirs, but "signs of joy and togetherness." Müller is quick to explain what the church will not permit. The image of the Holy Father should "not be distorted," for example, Müller emphasizes, and should "not appear on teddy bears or cushions."
Müller was more than happy to present the official souvenirs himself. The Web site offers items such as "Finger Rosaries" and dishwasher-safe coffee cups adorned with an image of a smiling and waving pope. For €5, pilgrims can purchase a small bottle of holy water, also bearing a likeness of the pope, as well as an official logo, and for Germans looking to replace their tattered World Cup car flags, €4.50 gets them a yellow and white flag bearing the Vatican's coat of arms. But the flag, which the site claims will stay attached to your car at speeds of up to 75 kilometers per hour (47 mph), is apparently not intended for highway driving.
This time around, the church doesn't need the Inquisition to flatten any unwanted competition. In many cases, a little gentle pressure -- a few stern words from a local priest or a compliant local politician willing to pay a visit to an unlicensed vendor -- is enough to get the church's point across. One vendor in the picturesque town of Marktl was recently selling a Ratzinger bratwurst. But tossing the pope's image on the grill wasn't exactly what that Vatican had in mind. A little discreet intervention and the offending sausages were removed from the vendor's selection. Pastry chefs have also gotten the message and have changed the name of their "Pope Benedict Cake" to the less controversial "Benedict Cake."
With the Holy Father's visit still a week away, the church's holy kitsch already seems to have made an impact, and not just a financial one -- which, of course, no one wants to talk about.
A pope ballpoint pen with a built-in, miniature pope mobile has even made it as far as Berlin, a decidedly more heathen place than conservative and predominantly Catholic Bavaria. The pen's new owner is the head of the German Protestant Church, Berlin Bishop Wolfgang Huber, who acquired it during a visit to the Bavarian town of Altötting. Huber raves about his souvenir, saying the pope mobile really does move back and forth when he moves the pen. Of course, as a theologian Huber prefers the symbolic interpretation: "You can even make it move backwards. Given that we have a pope who is considered an intellectual, moving backwards isn't exactly a bad thing. It makes sense, and it's both convincing and impressive that he is returning to his roots."
Of course, Huber's counterpart in Regensburg would argue that only an officially sanctioned papal product could produce that kind of spiritual aura.