Advertising error fills Lake Constance with formaldehyde

Advertising error fills Lake Constance with formaldehyde
Photo: Stadtmarketing Konstanz

A chemistry mistake in an advertising campaign for the picturesque town of Konstanz has billboards around Germany showing the pristine Lake Constance full of the poisonous substance formaldehyde.


The campaign, designed to promote the pristine image of Konstanz, has embarrassed the town marketing team this week after a chemist noticed the chemical symbol for formaldehyde had been mistaken for that of water.

Posters suggested the famous Lake Constance, known as the Bodensee in German, was full of the poisonous and carcinogenic substance, news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Thursday.

The city had launched a competition for students at the Konstanz University of Applied Sciences – not to be mistaken for the elite University of Konstanz, a.k.a. “mini Harvard on Lake Constance” – to create the marketing campaign for the Baden-Württemberg town.

The winning design featured a blue background overlaid with the lake outline, filled in with chemical symbols. The student had hoped to reflect Konstanz’s position as the “City on the lake,” by using the slogan “City on the H2O,” but mistakenly used the chemical compound for formaldehyde instead.

Competition judges initially lauded the advert as a perfect representation of the picturesque town, calling it “simple but smart.”

“Konstanz…is not only located on the edge of the lake, providing greater quality of life, but is also a place for research and innovation in technology and science,” they explained in an official press release about the contest winner.

Despite the town’s scientific prowess, nobody noticed the serious error. Chemists draw water symbols as an Oxygen atom (O) connected by two lines to two Hydrogen atoms (H), with the lines drawn at an angle of approximately 105 degrees.

But the student who designed the winning poster had instead drawn three lines, joining the three atoms to a central point, creating the chemical symbol for formaldehyde. The extra carbon atom in this molecule is often left out in scientific drawings, but would stand at the point where the other three atoms join.

The error was discovered by a chemist three days after the posters were launched nationwide, and was posted on a blog at the online science community “Chemieonline,” Der Spiegel reported.

City marketing chief Hilmar Wörnle reacted angrily to the blog comments, referring to the chemist’s apparent efforts to “shame a whole town, and all of its scientific establishments.”

“From the perspective of a graphic artist, it is common practise to simplify chemical structures,” he added.

Some chemists have taken this as a shameful embarrassment for the town’s elite university, though the town council was keen to clarify that the University of Konstanz had not been involved.

“The university had nothing to do with this process. I really hope that it is not wrongly presented as if it was involved,” Wörnle added.



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