Cows buttering someone's heart valves

About twenty years ago we were living in a different house in Ireland, and we had analog satellite rather than the digital that’s pretty much all there is here now. That analog system meant we had access to a lot of the satellite stations that broadcast “in the clear” from Germany.

I was just starting to study German then, and was watching a lot of TV on the main German stations – RTL1 & 2, ARD, ZDF, ProSieben, 3Sat, and the predecessor to what is now Sat.1* – to get a feel for the sound of the language.  There was some fascinating programming on these, especially late at night.

I no longer remember the circumstances in which I stumbled upon the show from which the video below was extracted. All I know is that as soon as I realized what I was looking at, I slapped a tape into the VCR and started recording. The show was a history of German television advertising, and it had wonderful things on it, some of them just eyewateringly strange.

One of these was the truly bizarre (by today’s standards) commercial that follows. Our good friend Torsten Dewi, aka Wortvogel, veteran German TV writer, film critic and (former) man-about-München, tells me that it was a blanket ad sponsored by a number of participants in the German dairy industry – sort of a German variant of the famous dairy-board-based  “Got Milk?” campaigns in the US, or similar campaigns for meats  (a la “Pork. The other white meat”).

But take a look at this. Warning: if your cholesterol is on the high side, you may need your medication after sitting through this thing. If you’re a cardiologist, you’d better brace yourself before you watch, as some of the things the characters in this animation are going to do will turn your brain right around in your skull. …A rhyming translation of the song that runs behind the action appears after the video. Unfortunately the video doesn’t display a full set of controls for some reason. You can pause it by clicking on it, then restart by clicking again.

(Note: the beginning of the video is from another commercial, featuring a young chef saying “It has to be easily digestible — like Overstolz (cigarettes) from the Rhine!” It’s there because I wanted to keep the music from the main part of the video in one piece. If like me you feel the urge to hide your eyes on seeing a head chef strolling around a food prep area and handing his staff packs of cigarettes, then look away for about five seconds.)

The song, in rough translation, goes something like this:

These days everyone’s insides are overloaded
With chow whose food value’s so corroded
that your insides and your guts get discommoded
and your cardio and liver get clogged up!

Nonetheless folks keep on shoving food inside ‘em
Until it’s almost calcified ‘em —
Then the innards to a sorry halt come slidin’
And the gall starts heading northward in a rush!

[spoken] So what gives with that donkey-clerk?
We need to get some cows to work!

— And we cut to the cows of Germany, chewing their cuds, and then swinging milk churns and dancing to Alpine zither music. They dance into the dairy, churn the butter by kicking the churns up to tumble in the air, and then start going through the rest of the production process. The cow doing the rough shaping of the butter blocks is using a pair of grooved wooden paddles which are still used in small dairies all over Europe for working butter (the English-language term for these is “Scotch hands”). These are used for squeezing the last vestiges of buttermilk out of the butter, and also for working in salt. – Another cow then helps with the packaging.

And now comes the Butter Propaganda. As the happy cows skip into the stylized human being and start buttering his heart valves and smearing his gall bladder with the stuff, the song resumes:

Kids, here’s what you have to know:
Back to nature you should go!
Butter’s the best cure, you know,
And this is why that’s true:

Butter cleans your stomach out,
Gives you energy without a doubt,
Helps the heart pump in and out,
‘Cause butter’s good for you!


Now, people, with butter
Things “go smooth as butter”,
The good stuff’s all in butter today:
But be careful, folks, ‘cause
The brand name’s important:
It’s German brand-name butter that’s okay!

No more kidney stones for you,
Upset nerves get quiet, too:
Butter ‘em up, they’ll calm right down –
That’s what you should do;

Butter sorts the liver out,
Makes the gall bladder grin and shout,
Good health is what it’s all about
With butter from the “coo”!


Now, people, with butter
Things “go smooth as butter”,
It makes your aches and pains go away:
But be careful, folks, for
The brand name’s important:
It’s German brand-name butter that’s okay!

About the above rendering of the song: Torsten kindly gave me a literal prose translation, which I’ve adapted.  Sometimes I’ve let the exact sense of the words go for the sake of a general effect, especially where the German can’t be even closely rendered into English in rhyme — the funktioniert / geschmiert / guarantiert combo after the first chorus  is a super internal rhyme, but really problematic when you try to translate it closely.

…There’s something to add to this in passing. More than one European dairy culture has the tradition that butter is somehow magical. Possibly this comes of ancient people’s confusion and/or admiration about the way something that started out cream suddenly becomes butter and buttermilk – similar to the sudden, seemingly magical changes that happen to dough or grape juice when yeast is added.  Also, butter is sometimes unpredictable, as bread and wine are – conditions have to be right for its making, or it can fail – so it gives the impression of being a living thing, something that has to be placated and coaxed (as in all those traditional buttermaking songs).

In these traditions, butter is often assumed to have mysterious powers in its own right. Butter neglected, disrespected or treated carelessly is susceptible to being stolen by witches or bringing down a curse on those who misuse it. However, butter churned on certain feast days or nights, especially in May, can protect humans and livestock from sickness and the evil eye, and cure all illnesses. The Irish saying “An rud nach leigheasann im ná uisce beatha níl aon leigheas air / What butter and whiskey won’t cure, there is no cure for…” has parallels in Switzerland and Austria, and the phrase “Butter is the best cure” in the song is a straightforward lift from an old German-language folk saying.  So it’s fascinating to see this material turn up here in a piece of straightforward advertising film from the middle of the twentieth century…

(And now I have to go try to get that butter song out of my head, where after all this post-editing it bids fair to be stuck for hours, if not days. Oh well.)

*I think I liked their old rainbow-sphere logo better. The new one looks like a peppermint ball.



The past, buttered up
Article Name
The past, buttered up
A postwar German dairy commercial about How Butter Will Cure (Almost) All Your Ills... as long as it's from the national brand.
Publisher Name
Out of Ambit
Publisher Logo

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