COLOGNE, WEST GERMANY, SEPT. 6 -- The grinning face was familiar, the message on the gas station sign incredible: "Iraq Oil, Gasoline from Iraq, as long as the supply lasts!"
Within minutes after Wolfgang Wippenhohn posted the sign on Wednesday, the line of cars -- more than 100 of them -- stretched as far as you could see down Amsterdammerstrasse in this bustling city on the Rhine River.
Smack in the middle of the Persian Gulf crisis, Wippenhohn was holding a 30-percent-off sale on gas. He was offering gas at the spectacular price of 99 pfennigs (65 cents) per liter ($2.46 per gallon).
The catch was, you had to look the poster of Saddam Hussein in the eye and swallow the idea of buying the stuff from Iraq.
No problem. "This is the greatest, Mr. Wippenhohn," one customer told the proprietor. "Keep it up." One customer was so eager to get some of that Iraqi Super that he plowed his car right into the one in front of him in the creeping line. Wippenhohn sold 1,000 liters an hour -- double his normal sales.
For hours, even after the sale ended, people arrived with extra canisters, politely asking for some of the Iraqi oil.
"Everybody was thrilled," Wippenhohn said today. "Some of them had second thoughts, but they filled up anyway."
The sale on Iraqi gas was actually a stunt staged by Stern TV, a news magazine on the West German cable channel RTL. The idea was to see just how far people would go to get cheap gas. Would they buy it from the dictator they see vilified each night on TV? Would they mortgage their morals for a cheap fill-up?
Anyone who asked was told that an Iraqi tanker had just anchored at Cologne's port after slipping past the net of U.S. warships in the gulf.
For two hours, reporter Andrea Zaik watched his countrymen fill up and asked each of them about the political meaning of his action. "One person said, 'The blockade is Bush's personal problem.' A few others said the problem was Saddam's, not theirs.
"We asked them if this was moral, and many of them said, 'Hey, morals stop at 30-pfennigs-per-liter savings."
One motorist told the interviewers, "For 30 pfennigs difference, we'll support a dictator too."
"That Iraqi gas was so good, there's no knock in the engine, not at all," another satisfied customer told the TV crew.
Few of the customers suspected that the sale was a fake. One person said he was vaguely suspicious of a trick, but quickly added, "For cheap gas, I don't care if it is."
The TV station paid Wippenhohn the difference between the sale price and his usual charge of about 93 cents per liter ($3.56 per gallon). The station owner said he was a bit doubtful about cooperating with the TV stunt at first. "But in the end, business always comes first," he said. Today, gas was back to its normal, crisis-generated level. The sign outside the station said, "The tanker is empty."