YOU KNOW it’s election time in Germany when every lamppost sprouts the grinning face of a politician. The placards appear suddenly. Local authorities decide on a date and time, and activists race to get their ladders out: popular lampposts on busy roads are hot property.

The images on the placards and the posters have barely changed since 1949, when modern Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, stared ferociously into the middle distance above the words “Peace, Freedom and Unity”. Today’s would-be chancellors use the same technique: a face, a party name and a slogan. But strategists now analyse how to transmit the party’s core message in the two seconds voters on average spend looking at a poster. What look like bland photos are carefully, and expensively, choreographed.

The posters of the current poll favourite, the centre-left SPD’s Olaf Scholz, are the most successful, says Frank Brettschneider, a political scientist at Hohenheim University. Mr Scholz, who is selling himself as the Angela Merkel continuity candidate, sits statesmanlike, as if he’s already chancellor. His capable-looking hands are in the foreground, crossed in a manner reminiscent of a characteristic Merkel pose. “The SPD has done well focusing on the candidate, who is more popular than the party,” he says.

Mrs Merkel’s own party, the conservative Christian Democrats, for their part have realised that their candidate, Armin Laschet, is more of a liability than an asset. So their slogans feature more prominently. Unfortunately, a ring around Mr Laschet’s photo gives him the appearance of being stuck in a washing-machine.

The usually immaculate Christian Lindner, leader of the market-friendly FDP, has opted to look knackered in shirtsleeves at his night-time desk—a hardworking, last-one-in-the-office pose that he hopes will appeal to his pro-business supporters.

The Greens, also realising that their candidate, Annalena Baerbock, divides opinion, often feature their co-leader, Robert Habeck, alongside her. They have chosen to drench their photos in a murky, pond-like pale green. “They look like Martians,” says Professor Brettschneider.

To foreign observers from more image-conscience climes, the posters can seem old-fashioned and the photos unattractive. Few people, after all, are in politics because of their looks. But in Germany posters are effective political tools. Some 56% of voters said they were informed about parties and candidates from posters, compared to only 48% for TV ads and 25% for social media, according to a study by Hohenheim University and Forsa, a polling company.

The posters are omnipresent, so they are seen by voters that are hard to reach. “Whether we want to or not, we can’t escape political posters,” says Stephanie Geise, a professor in communications at Bremen University. When it comes to broadening voter turnout, maybe cardboard is cutting-edge after all.