Bacterial billboard brings 'culture' to Hollywood marketing
Two billboards made from live bacteria mounted in an abandoned storefront window in downtown Toronto are giving a whole new meaning to the term "viral marketing."
A team of scientists created the one-of-a-kind advertisements to promote director Steven Soderbergh's film Contagion, in theatres Sept. 9, starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The living billboards, sure to leave germaphobes itching for hand sanitizer, were the brainchild of Mark Biernacki and Steph Mackie, the creative director duo of Lowe Roche advertising agency in Toronto.
"We wanted something that would have visual impact," explained Mackie.
Building on the film's plot, which follows the spread of a fast-moving and lethal airborne virus that kills within mere days, Biernacki and Mackie teamed up with U.K.-based CURB Media to transform their idea into a microbe-infused reality.
"We wanted to create an organic execution that people could fall in love with," said Anthony Ganjou, founder of U.K.-based CURB media, an agency specializing in natural and sustainable media whose previous creations include billboards made out of grass plants and light installations made out of glow-in-the-dark bacteria.
Using 35 different strains of bacteria and fungi — including penicillin, mould and pigmented bacteria — CURB's team of 25 microbiologists and immunologists tested different strains of bacteria to see which would work best at creating a message that would slowly grow into letters making up the film's name.
Lowe Roche's art director Glen D'Souza then began the time-consuming process of hand-stencilling the sign and "brushing" the bacteria onto agar, a medium in which the microorganisms can grow, inside the two giant petri dishes that would become the billboards.
"We think they might be the world's biggest petri dishes," said Mackie with a laugh.
Once installed behind a storefront window in an abandoned building at 409 Queen Street West, the word Contagion slowly began to appear on the billboards, initially blank, as the bacteria grew.
"There was a reveal mechanic where the bacterial itself cultivated into the message over the course of several hours," explained Ganjou. "When you put them up, you could see nothing but the gel itself."
To ensure the message would be decipherable once the bacteria began to multiply, Ganjou said scientists chose specific strains with colours that would naturally stand out.
"We isolated the ideal cultures and essentially laid out the bacteria in a way that would represent the message, installed it, and Bob's your uncle," said Ganjou.
However, the team did face some challenges building the installation, like ensuring the bacteria could grow on a vertical plain without sliding down and preventing the bacteria from growing too fast outside the shape of the letters.
If left untouched, Ganjou said the bacteria would eventually "grow into a chaotic uncontrollable state like a contagious virus," leaving the billboard's message no longer legible.
"In the right conditions, it would continue to flourish," he said.
The team also needed to follow strict Health Canada guidelines to ensure the bacteria they chose was safe, said Mackie.
Ganjou said the bacteria, most of which can be found in any household, are completely harmless.
"We wouldn't recommend anyone eating it or anything like that, but it's behind glass in a contained environment," he said.
The billboards' prime location on a busy downtown street — combined with warm weather and a flood of visitors in town for the Toronto International Film Festival — ensured the billboards caught the attention of hundreds of intrigued passersby, said Mackie.
"It was interesting to watch it grow on a number of different levels," agreed Biernacki. "First, the bacteria growing on the living billboards, but then you take it one step further to not only the people who see it in person, but also how it's spreading virally around the world."
"I think people were quite literally rubbing their eyes when they saw what the installation actually is," added Ganjou.
After five days of growing, the billboards, which were erected Aug. 28, were dismantled.
Despite no longer being visible, the campaign has continued to grow as photos and a time-lapse video of the multiplying microorganisms has gone viral on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
"It's been getting thousands of tweets and comments all over the world," said Ganjou. "This type of stuff goes viral and is social by its very nature."
As of Sept. 9, a YouTube video depicting the making of the bacteria billboard has seen nearly 40,000 views since it was uploaded two days earlier.
Video embedded for your convenience:
Saw the article last week and thought I would post it for anyone who might have missed it. Did anyone get to see the billboards?