Pure Genius

Q&A: Rob Tarry on the ingenious (sometimes banned) ads for Science World

Q&A: Rob Tarry on the ingenious (sometimes banned) ads for Science World

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Ads for a Canadian science museum have been shocking and engaging people on the West Coast with unbelievable facts that are brought to life before their eyes.

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Mobile phones are coated with 18 times more bacteria than what we find on the average toilet handle.

And did you know that we weigh less if we move downward, and we are taller in outer space? Or that, on average, we lose more than 1,000 hairs per day and yet we grow more than 120 feet of hair on that same day? Or that koalas have fingerprints that are nearly identical to ours? Or if tigers had access to one they would actually use a litter box? Or that ejaculation fights the cold virus?

These are some of the seemingly limitless number of fascinating facts that the ad agency Rethink Advertising uncovered and then brought to life for Vancouver's Science World campaign, which has now been running for close to a decade. The agency uses posters, billboards, print, video, audio and even interactive street installations to illustrate such facts in ways that are really, really hard to ignore. At one bus shelter a poster invites people to press a button that then activates a spritz of water into the onlookers face with a voice over: "ACHOO! Did you know that a sneeze can travel 12 feet and hover for three hours? It's true. And gross. But hey, you've learned something! -- Science World. We can explain."

In August, Rethink launched a series of controversial ads to promote Science World's new exhibit on sexuality. Two of the three print ads were banned from Vancouver bus stops. One featured a woman from the knees down lying in a hospital bed with her broken legs held immobile in casts, slightly spread, and a man's bare legs lying in between hers, with his feet flexed. The tag line reads: Orgasms can kill pain.

SmartPlanet caught up with Rob Tarry, creative director of Rethink Advertising in Vancouver, to talk about the agency's creative process, and how they wind up with installations like a billboard coated in two ounces of real gold and water that people can walk on.

How would you describe the Science World ads to someone who has never seen one?

Rob Tarry: Well first, Science World itself is a famous and very recognizable building on the Vancouver skyline. It looks like a giant golf ball. It's one of those Buckminster Fuller geodesic balls and so it's hard to miss. Vancouverites drive by it every day. It's a blessing and a curse. They're so familiar that they think: Oh yeah, I took my kid back there in 1992 and it was a lot of fun. But then they sort of take it for granted.

So ten years ago the idea behind this campaign was to let people know: Hey, it's always constantly new. It has rotating exhibits, please come back to the giant gold ball.

And how do the ads accomplish that?

We wanted the ads to be a little free sample. So you're at the bus shelter and it asks you to push a button and something happens, it's like a little free sample of Science World. Because that's what they do. They take science and they make it interactive, they make it fun, and hopefully make it cool. And memorable.

Tell us about how you find the facts? Does Science World provide them? Do you discover them yourself?

As part of the process we look for them.

They will let us know that there's an upcoming exhibit. For instance, one year there was an exhibit on precious metals. This year, famously the exhibit on sex and sexuality. We go after those facts that are related to these exhibits. It takes months and months and months each year.

And then we go to Science World and everyone has a good chuckle and then ... they break our hearts.

Why? How?

Well, the Internet is full of lies. And well, it breaks our hearts to know that most of the facts, about half of those we find, or dig up, or fall in love with, are just not true.

Oh no!

Oh yes.

So let's say you have a fact that is confirmed true, and it's interesting but needs to come to life. Could you describe how you find that creative moment? Take, for example, the giant hairball on the sidewalk installation or the video of colleagues kissing each other at the weekly meeting instead of shaking hands.

OK. Take the kissing in the boardroom ad. We started with the fact is that shaking hands spreads more germs than kissing.

The fact has a lot of wow in it already. That was handy. So it came down to: How do we want to bring this to life?

One of our creative tricks is to say: Okay, let's assume that everybody in the room knows this fact already, what would happen if people were living with that knowledge? How would that affect our day-to-day and what would that look like?

That's a cool way to approach it.

That led to our idea that if everybody knew this then at a business meeting no one would shake hands, they would kiss.

Then it was a matter of tone. So you have people kissing and making out. Do you do it crazy and be sort of salacious? Or do you downplay it and make it mundane and make it everyday because everyone just knows that it's "common knowledge?"

That is what I loved about it ... how everyday it felt, yet at the same time so odd to watch.

We filmed it in a very detached matter. By making it an every day occurrence we think that it makes it funnier and slightly classier.

I can only imagine if not performed exactly right, it could have easily gone in a very cheesy and just plain wrong direction.

You know usually film crews are completely indifferent to what's going on because they've seen it all. They've seen David Duchovny pass out. (I'm kidding.) But this one they were laughing and laughing. And that's when I knew that we had something going here that had a chance to break through and be memorable.

How do you measure the memorableness?

In the old days -- like five years ago -- things in our industry were measured by advertising award shows. And that specific (kissing) spot has won awards, which is great.

But now maybe it's about Web metrics?

Right. How it gets passed around through the Internet and what kind of buzz it builds on social media.

It's been such a flexible idea that it works in radio, we've won a bunch of radio awards, it works in TV, it works online. It works as street stunts like the giant hairball. Or we did the thing where we filled a pool full of this liquid cornstarch and you could walk across water if you ran fast enough.

Creatives wait their whole life for something interesting to say with their advertising. Most the time it is more like "Now you can collect flight miles!" or "Now fortified with fiber!" or "Get 39 miles per gallon!"

With Science World, everything that you're being asked to bring to life is inherently interesting. And makes people go, 'Huh, I didn't know about that.' Not a lot of people say, 'Huh, I want to learn more about how you are fortified with fiber.'

Give me three or four of you favorite facts.

Well this one: You can take an ounce of gold and hammer it so thin that you could spread it over the size of a billboard, without it breaking. We had thought, "No way, there's no way that's true."

How did you illustrate it?

We wrapped and entire billboard with [two ounces] of gold. We hired a professional gilder.

Real gold?

We had a security guard standing in front of it 24 hours a day. And it was up for about week.

Wow.

It was another home run for the Science World campaign. There's another fact that comes to mind: There are more chickens in the world than there are human beings.

For the radio spot we have a lecturer who's sort of holding forth on facts, but he goes off the rail. He says: Science tells just that there are more chickens on earth than there are human beings. So this radio ad is just for you chickens.

Then he starts going, 'Bok, bok.' And then we have a translator come in and say: Greetings chickens, you are welcome to come to Science World. Inside there is corn. You will not be eaten.

You must start off with a lot of ideas. How do you narrow them down? How do you find the winner?

There is a catch phrase we use called, "The 1 or 100 Rule." So you have the [creative] brief, you have the method, you have the thing that you're trying to say. And usually it's either the first idea that pops in your head or it's the hundredth idea.

But the stuff in the middle is terrible. This is nearly always the case. (It may not be literally a hundred ideas but it's that spirit.)

You're thinking and thinking, and bouncing ideas off you partner, which is one of the key things that we do. We work in pairs, because there's nothing more sad than sitting in a room by yourself listening to the hum of the air conditioning as nothing is in your head and you have no ideas, and your panic grows and there's just no way you'll think of anything good in that situation.

The real trick is to be hard on yourself. It's really easy to say, 'I get this, and I think it's great, and if anybody doesn't agree with me they're clearly just not getting the big picture.'

How do you test the ideas?

We have this thing called peer review where we show people ideas in their rough stage and people either get it or don't get it. But if they do get it, then you say: What does it mean? And then you're absolutely flabbergasted to hear that they completely missed the point. It's not their fault at all. It's your fault as the communicator. You left it too vague, or it's too inside knowledge. This happens a lot where you (wrongly) assume people know a lot of things. People who are virgins to an idea are incredibly valuable as a way to get perspective.

Let's talk about the sex controversy. What happened?

This was a gift from the advertising gods. You just say the word sex and people have a little smirk. It was always my hope to be stimulating and memorable and witty without being sleazy, which is always a fine line to walk.

The specific ads that are causing the most buzz are the outdoor poster print ads, one of which is the fact that ejaculation helps colds. The visual is a box of tissue with some wadded up tissue around it. We were hoping to present this fact slyly and with nothing too crude. So hopefully that one falls on the witty side so you look at it and go: Ah, I got you, I got you. That's the direction we're looking for instead of, 'Excuse me, I'm going to shield my eyes.'

There were a couple others in this campaign that did, I think, push a little too many buttons.

Can you describe another one?

The headline is, The fact is that orgasms can soothe pain, or kill pain. And the image is a couple and you just see their feet sticking out below the blankets. And they may or may not be engaged in some sort of sexual activity. A woman is wearing a cast. So it's a bit of a cheap joke of having sex while she's in a full body cast. That one is not particularly witty, but it is eye-catching.

How was the creative process in terms of coming up with that?

It all came down to how clear we're being that these people are having sex. If you're too discreet it's unclear what you're saying.

The number one most important quality of any communication is clarity. That's the trump card, that's the alpha and the omega. If you don't have clarity, then what do you have?

Any tips on creating engaging pieces?

We have a theory and this works for everything whether it's social media or traditional media. It's called the three-quarters drawn circle, which is if I have an idea and I'm telling you something I'm only going to tell you three-quarters of the story, I'm only going to draw you three-quarters of the circle.

Why?

You the viewer, the listener fill in that last little gap. That spark of connection where you fill in the rest of the story -- like the one about ejaculation fights colds. You go, 'Ah!' You fill in that last little gap. That engages your brain. It involves you, the viewer, and that's what makes it sink in.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure