Uncorked Executive Producer Marcelino Alvarez reprised his role last summer as producer for the revolutionary Nike Chalkbot. “A combination of event, digital and social media,” Uncorked describes it, “the Chalkbot pushes the limits of technology and advertising.”
While being towed by an SUV, the Chalkbot takes messages sent to it by social media users around the world and sprays them in Livestrong-yellow chalk dust onto the pavement.
Marcelino produced the Chalkbot’s debut in 2009 while serving as Executive Interactive Producer at Wieden+Kennedy, and the beast returned in 2010 for Lance Armstrong’s last jaunt in le Tour. In addition to producing the event, Marcelino also oversaw the digital advertising, the Facebook application, and an iPad application that was used on the ground to procure local messages in French and English.
We grabbed Marcelino to bug him for a souvenir, but wound up talking about kicking up real-world dust in digital marketing instead.
How does the Chalkbot work?
First members of the public submit messages to the Chalkbot. There are lots of ways to do this. One is via twitter or the Facebook app. There were banners that lived in various partner sites. In 2009 we had ability to SMS a message. Those messages are screened by a profanity filter, reviewed in several languages by interns, sent into a queue, downloaded in France, and finally transferred to the bot via USB.
The Chalkbot then prints the message in its custom font, we take a photo of the message, tag it with timestamp, associate original message with image, send and it back to the cloud. The person who sent the message is notified by tweet or email with a link to the photo.
How long did it take to create?
We had 6 weeks to fabricate the hardware from the ground-up, build all the software, and build the backend that allowed the messages. Of course all this was being done across really awful Internet connections that were nowhere near broadband speeds. We really had to push, even just physically. I kind of equated it to being on tour with a band. Minus the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Sounds like fun.
On the whole it was an amazing experience. Here we had a machine that was not at all an established technology, and something that had never really been done on this scale before. It was in a foreign country, and it was part of a bigger campaign celebrating Lance’s return after a three-year hiatus. So there was a lot going on.
We got to essentially graffiti the entire French countryside for a month. It really sat on the fringe of anything I’d done in my life before.
What was the biggest challenge?
It’s difficult to pick just one. While we had tested the machine out in Pittsburgh, we were really pushing it into untested territory every day. We were dealing with incredibly hot temperatures, which — when combined with the frequent starting/stopping of the machine while we closed off road segments — led to lots of nozzles clogging.
Between stages, we were driving it through narrow mountain passes atop of a flatbed trailer, which was extremely dangerous. We were also printing at really high altitudes that we had not tested against. Any number of these factors could have caused massive mechanical failures, and while we were fortunate to not have any, even the simplest of mechanical issues would have caused massive delays to our production schedule. It’s not easy to find Chalkbot parts in the middle of France.
Add to this the fact that we were printing each day right before the cyclists would pass through, the drama of Lance’s return to professional cycling, a rigorous travel schedule through foreign countries with little or no sleep, and you have the recipe for one of the most difficult productions ever.
Any particular moment that sticks in your memory?
We were printing one day in a small town about 100 miles outside of Paris, and this van pulled up, full of Slovenian kids. Maybe 20 of them. They were all decked out in Livestrong gear and started shouting to us, waving the Slovenian flag.
It was particularly amazing because Nike didn’t have presence in Slovenia, and here they were yelling, “Look, it’s the Chalkbot!”
It turns out one of their friends had a girlfriend with cancer during the Chalkbot’s run in 2009. He sent a message to the Chalkbot and gave the picture to his girlfriend, and they said it really helped her get through it.
“Livestrong for us is like armor,” they said. “You wear it, and you can get through anything.”
It was a perfect example of how an experience between one person and a brand can explode into an experience between 20 people and a brand. Especially now, when I hear people talking about how such and such a banner reached so many eyeballs, I have to ask: how deep was that connection?
See the Chalkbot in action (and Marcelino, too) at UncorkedStudios.com.
Client: Nike & Livestrong
Aarra Agency : Uncorked
Partner Agency :W+K