The real reason Carlsberg used holography to put its dead founder on stage

JC Jacobsen, who founded Carlsberg in 1847, took to the stage in Copenhagen in holograph form yesterday to explain why the brand's famous tagline, "Probably", reflects his belief in the scientific method.

Jacobsen, portrayed by an actor who had studied the mannerisms of the brewing pioneer, was projected on to the stage during a TEDx talk.

It was achieved using a technique known called Pepper’s Ghost, in which an ordinary image or video feed is projected onto a transparent material, creating the effect of a 3D person or object.

The idea was created by Belgian agency Happiness, which is part-owned by FCB and an affiliate of the Interpublic network. According to Geoffrey Hantson, chief creative officer at Happiness, the idea to use holography only came about because it made sense within the context of the story they wanted to tell.

Happiness, which works with Carlsberg in Belgium, was originally tasked with creating an idea that would communicate authenticity and help the brand compete in a country where it is up against countless local brands with centuries of history. The idea was later picked up by the global company.

This meant looking back into the history of the brand, Hantson said, but at the same time finding something that was "extremely relevant for today."

The Mark Zuckerberg of his day

From studying the life of Jacobsen, Hantson realised he was a forebear of many of the entrepreneurs revered today. "If you look at Jacobsen, he’s a bit Elon Musk, a bit Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, but all in one. He was the first one to open-source things [he gave away the strain of yeast he developed to competitors] – the first to give away 98% of all his money to science.

"There’s a lot of brands out there and the ones we really care about are the ones based on the philosophy of their founders," Hantson continued. "And we thought, if he was living today, he would be a great guy to give a TED talk – I’d really be listening to him. That’s how the idea was born."

Rather than just plonking him on stage with no framing, Hantson wanted to create a story in which Jacobsen was invited to speak at the TEDx event via time-travel. And this is where the technology came into play.

"By researching how people lived at that time, and how he was living, we found out that the holographic technique was invented then," Hantson said. "If it was invented then, it kind of makes sense to holographically make him time travel." Pepper’s Ghost is named after John Henry Pepper, an English scientist and inventor who first popularised it in 1862.

After conceiving the idea of inviting Jacobsen to give a TED talk, Happiness had to ensure there was an event where this could actually happen. This meant contacting the committee behind the existing TEDxCopenhagen and proposing an event during Carlsberg’s week of celebrations for its 170th anniversary.

Happiness suggested the event’s theme – uncertainty – while TEDxCopenhagen brought in five other speakers, who each shared thoughts on ways to embrace the potential of uncertainty, from going on holiday to randomly chosen destinations, to an approach to education that doesn’t involve grades.

Authenticity is a rare currency

In Jacobsen’s talk, the theme became about letting go of absolute beliefs and instead applying the scientific approach, in which the idea of "proof" is really one of increasingly convincing evidence. The talk highlighted Jacobsen’s contribution to science; it also took place in the Carlsberg Gklyptotek, an art museum supported by the Carlsberg Foundation.

The main challenge of the project was not the hologram, but the speech, Hantson said. "To make a speech that he could have given in 1883 or 1887 that would still be relevant today, that was the biggest hurdle."

Putting this together meant months of work in Carlsberg’s archives, trying to "understand his psyche". Striving for as much authenticity as possible was vital, Hantson said.

"A lot of those brands have the names of founders [in their marketing], but to me it feels like a marketing story rather than a real story. I say that I’m a real fan of him, because he really lived like that."

In contrast, Hantson described a brand he once worked for that would talk about a founder, who, upon investigation, he discovered was a completely fictional creation.

"I refused to continue to do work on that founder," he said. "I don’t think we should do that – out of principle and out of ethics. But we also live in a world where you are no longer allowed to do it because somebody somehow will tell everybody that it’s not true." 

The recording of the speech, and its introductory film – in which we see Jacobsen receive his invite from the future – will now be used in a number of formats by Carlsberg’s markets around the world, until the end of the year.

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