Saturday, September 10, 2011

Germophobia: wanna get people in the mood for "Contagion" movie about killer virus - grow harmless microbes in public #microbialart

Well, this story is pretty cool in many ways. David Coil, who works on my "microBEnet" project posted an entry on our blog: Microbial art in the built environment: bacterial billboard goes viral which called my attention to the story.

Seems that the folks promoting the microbe-focused movie "Contagion" came up with a fun marketing idea. They created a living billboard with microbes on it

It is pretty cool. Just watch how the letters come out and the billboard becomes 3D. It would be fun to do this with some event at UC Davis .. will have to think about it. But overall, I think this idea is really cool and very very well executed.

However, I do want to note some of the reporting on it has gotten a few details a bit off. For example, in the Washington Post: ‘Contagion’ bacteria billboard is exactly what it sounds like (Video) - Celebritology 2.0 - The Washington Post they write
"A YouTube video shows the process in which “two large Petri dishes were inoculated with live bacteria including penicillin, mold and pigmented bacteria.” The result is the most amazing, creepy and literal viral marketing campaign in recent history"

Well, not exactly. Penicillin and mold are not live bacteria. Penicillin is alas, not even alive but I think they are referring to organisms that make the antibiotic, not the antibiotic itself. And this is certainly a great viral marketing campaign, but it is not "literally" viral marketing as these are not viruses in the billboard.

The Montreal Gazette has a better story on the campaign: Bacterial billboard brings 'culture' to Hollywood marketing. In the article they describe in more detail the ideas and some of the challenges behind the living billboard. Most interesting to me:
"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.
So I guess they too called the mold penicillin not Penicillium ... may be more common than I thought. But also worth noting is this is a agency that specializes in living billboards and this is not the first time they have done something with microbes. In fact they have done some pretty cool living/outdoor ads including using compost, crop circles, mowing patterns, and even, yes, bioluminescence: Bioluminescence - CURB, sustainable advertising, natural media

Going back to the accuracy of the reporting issue. I note there are others out there who have flagged the story and the concept due to the fact that the movie is about a killer virus and the billboard is of course using bacteria and fungi. For example see Katherine Hobson's post at the Wall Street Journal Blog: Studio Promotes Killer-Virus Movie ... With Bacterial Billboard. In it she says
We at the Health Blog are very sensitive to mixing up viruses and bacteria, probably because we’ve made that error ourselves before.

So on one hand, we think the promotion Warner Bros. Canada dreamed up for Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” which opens today, is clever .....
But then she goes on to critique it
On the other hand, the movie is about a virus — the fictional MEV-1. People are already confused about the differences between viral and bacterial ailments, to the point where they will demand antibiotics for problems that likely have a viral cause, like upper respiratory infections.
Personally I think this may be a bit too curmudgeony. The campaign clearly had the desired effect by showing, well, that microbes can grow fast. So the microbes they used were not viruses. And so the ones they used were not harmful. It still is creepy in a way. It is a fine balance of course. We (the royal we here) want to promote microbes as being fun. And we also want to promote them as not always being dangerous. But microbes also do kill a lot of people. And this billboard will probably do more to get people talking and thinking about bacteria and mold than any other movie promotion in recent memory.

In the end microbes I guess creep people out much of the time. And we microbe fans just need to work on that to find ways such that microbes are not always viewed as icky.  So - sure this is capitalizing on a general feeling of germophobia.  But hey - that is pervasive and not the fault of the movie marketers (NOTE - ORIGINAL VERSION OF POST LEFT OUT THE "NOT" HERE - OOPS).

Just a last little note here - though some of the reporting has implied otherwise, there are lots of examples of microbes being used in art or related enterprises. See for example Microbial Art as well as the "Growing Impressions" work of Baldwin and Gulden and the work of Hunter Cole.  Lots of other living art out there including microbes - if anyone knows other examples please post.


  1. Jonathan,

    Thanks for such a comprehensive account of the inaccuracies in the reporting of the Contagion billboard. As the writing half of the creative team that came up with the billboard, it's been fascinating to see mutations in the 'facts' arise as they are repeated again and again.

    As you noted, penicillum has become penicillum, which is now, apparently, a bacteria. I've read various accounts of the billboards growing in completely in everything from three hours to two weeks. There was also a blog post that stated, quite incorrectly, that the boards were up in front of Warner Brothers' offices in Hollywood. (They were actually in a vacant storefront in Toronto.)

    As exciting as it's been to see our work catch on in so many places, it's been almost equally interesting to see how seemingly small inaccuracies can persist and crowd out what's actually true.

    Thanks also for your take on the WSJ's comments. When we came up with the idea, my art director partner, Glen D'Souza, and I were acutely aware of the possibility of being criticized for using bacteria and fungi to promote a film about a virus. The way we came to think of it was that the bacteria and fungi were our stuntmen. Just like in the movies, we employed a bit of trickery to achieve a dramatic effect without hurting anyone.

    As for others working in similar media, our search for someone to help execute this also turned up a Dutch designer named Jelte Van Abbema . His work incorporates e.coli, which Canadian regulations prohibited us from using.

    Thanks for the coverage.


    Mike Takasaki
    Lowe Roche Advertising

  2. Mike

    Thanks for the comments. I too always find it fascinating when stuff spreads around the web watching how coverage of the ideas morph. Bummed I was not in Toronto for your display. I would have put up a tent and watched it grow.

    If you need advice on andy future microbial or evolution installations, let me know ...

  3. As a cautionary tale in this realm, there is of course the utterly ridiculous case that was brought against Steve Kurtz and Bob Ferrell:


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