Last year Thomas Müller ate 42.9 kilograms (94.6 pounds) of fruit, consumed 540 glasses of alcoholic beverages, wore pajamas to bed, watched at least 1,200 hours of TV, drank champagne at birthday parties, received new music CDs for Christmas, drove to work and had sex with his wife 117 times. He is a man without secrets.
In the same year, Sabine Müller ate 57 kilograms (126 pounds) of fruit, consumed 229 glasses of alcoholic beverages, slept in a nightgown, occasionally baked a cake and watched more than 1,400 hours of TV. She has an orchid in her living room and puts up a real Christmas tree for the holidays -- and she had sex with her husband 117 times. She is a woman without secrets.
The Müllers spent two weeks of the year on vacation -- in Germany -- and on Jan. 1, 2008, they discovered that they had gained 370 grams (13 ounces) over the holidays. Thomas is 45, 1.79 meters (5'10") tall, is slightly overweight at 83.5 kilograms (184 lbs), and earns 3,702 ($5,923) a month gross. His wife, Sabine, is three years his junior, 1.66 meters (5'5") tall and weighs a little under 67 kilos (148 pounds). She works part-time, wears her hair long but not too long, runs the household on her own and likes reading horoscopes.
The two have been married for 17 years, and their only child, Alexander, turned 15 last summer. He was 14 when he kissed a girl for the first time.
The Müllers live in Cologne, a reasonable choice for the typical German family, but because everything about this family is a bit odd, their living room happens to be in Hamburg. To be exact, it's in a dark, brick building housing the offices of Jung von Matt, one of the country's most successful advertising agencies. This can only mean one thing: The Müllers are fictional. Thomas Müller is the average German man, Sabine is the average German woman and their family is the average Teuton family. They are what marketing experts call the "most common Germans." They exist, but then again, they're a figment of marketers' imaginations. Whatever their status, though, they are indispensable.
Anyone entering the room has the eerie sense that its occupants have left it only moments earlier, perhaps to make a sandwich in the kitchen or walk down to the basement to put the laundry in the dryer. But there is no kitchen or basement.
The room is updated periodically to conform to the latest trends and news headlines. Trainees at Jung von Matt double as "living room attendants." Their job includes making sure that the TV program guide is always opened to the correct page, the plants are kept watered and the books on the shelves are current. "Moppel-Ich," a bestselling diet book, was added in recent years (for Sabine Müller), along with the latest installments of the Harry Potter series, a book on the pleasures of quitting smoking, a smattering of popular self-help books and the latest bestsellers, next to a travel guide for the Mediterranean tourist haven of Mallorca -- a little light reading for husband Thomas.
Average Germans Thomas and Sabine like to paint their walls yellow and decorate them with pictures of family and animals. A small collection of stuffed animals lined up on the back of the sofa provides the necessary dose of coziness.
Knowing all of these intimate details is as important to advertising agencies as it is to the companies that are their clients -- because the average German rules the country's economy, determining what is purchased and what is produced. Political parties are also keenly interested in finding out what Thomas and Sabine Müller are thinking and what they want out of life. Politicians want to be there for the Müllers, or at least create the impression that they identify with the typical German voter. Everything about their politics is geared toward the average voter at the political center, even though the center is gradually shrinking. And anyone in the media who fails to take note of what the average German likes to listen to, read and watch is doomed to fail.
The average German, this fictional creation of a handful of advertising executives, is the most important person in the country, wooed and pursued by the business world, the political class and the public sphere. This average German -- who also happens to be ridiculed, despised and feared -- is the true King of Germany.
Those who embark on a search for this person, who engage with the generalization, are working with a composite image, fuzzy on the details and yet no less fascinating. Every person is curious about his or her own proximity to the norm and, by the same token, everyone wants to be special, original and recognizable as an individual. And yet, in pursuing uniqueness the individual is in fact moving within the great procession dubbed "the average" far more often than he or she suspects. Even the greatest individualist, convinced that he is one of a kind, measures his happiness against the average person. Ironically, it is clear this average German is nonexistent or, at the very least, exists only as the average German woman or the average German man. We make our daily decisions far more uniformly than we believe, some stemming from forced necessity and others reached completely of our own free will. Why is it, for example, that bright red was the most popular color of German cars for years? And why is that this color preference then changed, as if by some secret agreement, to metallic grey and, more recently, to black?
Even private and plainly individual decisions, like the naming of children, follow clear patterns and fashions, with the Pauls and the Maxes, the Maries and the Hannahs dying off for decades before returning to popularity. Will traditional German names like Ernst, Wilhelm and Elfriede soon be back in vogue? If so, why? What are the criteria behind the decisions we make? What do we allow to influence us? What is freedom?
The situation is paradoxical. In an age when total individuality is celebrated by some and painted as the source of all evil by others, a creeping uniformity is taking hold. In the big picture, it is only a handful of major corporations that clothe us and provide us with accessories, furnish our apartments and houses, produce the electronics with which we amuse ourselves, equip our computers with more or less the same software, serve us our prepared food and help us dispel boredom with a series of interchangeable games. Meanwhile, Hollywood and its surrogates serve up perfectly formatted desires to help us fill some of our free time.
Cigarettes were once marketed by telling us that "everyone is an original," and for almost 20 years marketers hawked the popular German margarine brand "Du darfst" ("You May") by suggesting that the typical "Du darfst" consumer is someone who insists: "I want to remain the way I am." But what am I like? What am I? Am I the master of my life or a product of my environment? People have always asked these questions, but never before have they been so intent on finding the answers, and never has such a wealth of data existed to point them in the right direction.
The German Federal Statistical Office and its counterparts at the state level use increasingly refined methods to illuminate all of the central aspects of our lives, encouraging us to write diaries and list the ways we spend our time at 10-minute intervals, then apply complicated procedures to describe the general direction taken by the entire herd.
But it is not just our businesses, and not only our governments, that are busily X-raying modern man. Banks, mail-order companies and telephone service providers constantly examine the individual, determined to discover whether he is creditworthy, or which of us are too often behind on our bills and come up short in the credit rating game.
Meanwhile, market researchers in the business world are not interested in the individual, but in the average person, the face of the masses. The condom, refrigerator and cigarette industries, importers of fresh flowers, distillers of Scotch whiskey and sports leagues -- they all want to know how we live, what we think, what we do and what we don't do, what we like, what we hate and -- what makes us tick.
Abundant data exists on the habits of the Germans. The Society for Consumer Research, for example, knows which TV programs we watch and for how long, whether our interest in spending money is rising or falling and what we intend to purchase. The Federal Statistical Office knows how we live, how much rent we pay and how much we earn, the German Automobile Club (ADAC) and auto insurance companies know who prefers which cars and what kinds of drivers are most likely to cause accidents.
Sex research institutes offer figures on our sex lives and beer brewers on how much we drink, while traffic experts can tell us the number of kilometers the average German sits in traffic every day. Trade unions have their statistics on the working world and health insurance agencies know why we call in sick. But never before have all of these figures been combined into one image, as SPIEGEL has now done. In those cases where no data was available, SPIEGEL conducted its own research. In each of two series of opinion polls, 1,000 Germans were asked about their attitudes and habits. In addition, data supplied by major German polling institutes like TNS Infratest and Allensbach was analyzed.
The end result is this image of the average person. It is a generalization, and as precise as the details of this generalization are, it remains just that: a generalization. When we examine and compare the figures and supposed conclusions, we gain a surprisingly large amount of information about what our lives would look like if our names were Sabine and Thomas Müller, with a living room in Hamburg. But the irony of it all is that we are in fact these fictitious people -- some more, some less so -- or at least to a far greater extent than we assume. Visitors to the living room at Jung von Matt are often shocked at how much it resembles their own living space, and they leave with the realization that we always behave relative to the social community around us, and that we apparently often use our freedom to relinquish that very same liberty and individuality.
Thus, we are left with a composite sketch of the German, the composite image of an average day in the life of average Germans Sabine Müller and Thomas Müller. It's a variation of the paint-by-numbers concept, and what comes out in the end is a portrait of a people with respectable resources, a well-fed, rather well-educated, reasonably satisfied and generally modest people.