One lump or two? Czechs choose sugary theme for EU ad campaign

The government unveiled its PR campaign for the forthcoming Czech presidency of the European Union on Thursday, featuring a host of Czech celebrities and…a sugar cube. Prime minister Mirek Topolánek says the campaign – featuring the slogan “we’ll make life sweeter for Europe” – aims to make Czechs realise the significance of the six-month presidency. But eyebrows are being raised at the campaign’s rather ambiguous choice of words.

Prime Minister Topolánek and his deputy for EU affairs Alexandr Vondra unveiled the new campaign at the government offices on Thursday morning. It features billboards and a 30-second video clip, in which Czech celebrities, including ice-hockey star Jaromír Jagr, goalkeeper Petr Čech and top model Tereza Maxová do amusing things with sugar cubes. So why the sugary theme? Michaela Jelínková is Mr Vondra’s spokeswoman:

“We really wanted to raise awareness of the European Union, because as you know all over Europe there is a lack of interest in EU matters. In Czech, the slogan has the potential to catch attention. That’s one thing. The second thing is that we are using famous Czech personalities in the TV spot, who have actually sweetened Europe’s life already. The message maybe is that anyone can add sugar or make the life of Europe and the world sweeter if one makes an effort, as these famous personalities have made so far.”

Michaela Jelínková went on to explain that the sugar cube was chosen because of its Czech roots - it was invented by one Jakub Krystof Rad, the director of the Dačice sugar refinery, in 1843. Rad was actually a native of Switzerland, and back then Dačice was just a backwater in the Austrian Empire, so there’s some dispute over whether the sugar cube is really Czech.

But never mind the provenance of the cube, the video itself is provocative. It was the country’s rather euro-sceptic president Vaclav Klaus who was credited with the oft-repeated remark back in the early 1990s that the Czech Republic would dissolve in the European Union like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee. As Alexandr Vondra stressed on Thursday to reporters – we’re not a sugar cube, we invented the sugar cube.

But even the phrase ‘we’ll make life sweeter for Europe’ is highly ambiguous in Czech. ‘To vám osladím’ literally translates as ‘I’ll make things sweeter for you’. But it can also be used ironically, as in - ‘I’ll make your life hell’. Mr Topolánek told reporters it was definitely the former meaning that the government had in mind. Czech colleagues in the Radio Prague offices, however, said they only ever used the phrase in the ironic, negative sense.

Michaela Jelínková says there is absolutely no malicious hidden intent behind the phrase. Anyway, she point outs, it was designed to provoke and catch the ear of the Czech people. She and her colleagues are still working on a snappy English version to accompany the Czech EU presidency that begins on January 1st next year. It’s still at the planning stage, but at the moment the strongest contender is “Czech sugar in the EU’s coffee.”