Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once suggested that Franz Aliquo might be in need of “psychiatric help,” and it wasn’t because of his Satanic-themed food truck, 666 Burger. It’s because he created Street Wars, a multinational series of live action tournaments that challenge players to hunt down and “assassinate” perfect strangers with squirt guns while trying to avoid their own would-be shooters. Successful assassins are assigned new targets, until the last person standing is tasked with taking down Aliquo himself while evading his team of watergun-packing bodyguards.
Bloomberg and other officials worried the game could prove dangerous or trigger an unnecessary police response in the years after the September 11 attacks. Aliquo says nothing like that has actually come to pass in the 10 year history of the tournaments, which returned to New York this week. And, he says, Street Wars and other artistic activities, such as costumed road trips dubbed Rental Car Rallies and a $666 hamburger topped with caviar and served in gold leaf, have taught him lessons about localization, marketing, and trusting the audience that have helped in his day job promoting brands looking to interact with consumers in ways beyond traditional advertising.
“What I do with Rental Car Rally and Street Wars is really try to create situations that will bring coincidences to people,” he says. “Being able to understand what types of situations cause what types of reactions makes it a lot easier to then create the types of advertising experiences that are really going to resonate with the consumer, which is really what brands are after right now.”
With Street Wars, for instance, Aliquo found that players in different countries use very different strategies.
“When we do street wars in London, a lot of times the kills that happen in the game happen because of people tricking each other–because of social engineering,” he says. Londoners Google their targets and lure them out of their homes with fake business opportunities or job offers, he says, while New Yorkers rely more on brute force.
“People just literally hang out in someone’s room for 18 hours or hang out in a garbage can or literally chase them through the streets,” he says. “There’s less James Bond trickery and more Jason Bourne action.”
Either strategy is perfectly within the rules, which give wide latitude to players, he says.
That’s something he’s tried to do in his advertising work as well, he says, pointing to a Pepsi pilot program called “Bronx flavor,” tested in that borough of New York.
“Part of that really was one of the billboards that we had made was on the street,” he says. “It just read, ‘Bronx flavor is,’ and there was a blank space.”
Pepsi and Aliquo’s firm provided chalk and a list of suggestions but generally trusted residents to fill in the blank as they saw fit without a problem, he says.
Still, Aliquo acknowledges Street Wars has had to add policies preventing players from doing things like breaking into each other’s homes.
“The thing that’s changed [the game] is really seeing how people interact in the real world and having to constantly update rules in order to account for things that I’ve never thought of,” he says.
But generally, participants play fair–since there are often no witnesses, players often have to come to a consensus about whether or not an assassination attempt was successful, for instance–and Aliquo, who takes inspiration from the Situationist movement of the ’50s and ‘60s in tearing down walls between performer and audience, generally prefers to match wits with players rather than kick them out for finding loopholes in the rules.
“One time I got killed because the way we had players recording their kills wasn’t 100% secure,” he says, explaining a player was able to falsely record his own disqualification, making him eligible to join Aliquo’s bodyguard squad in the final round.
“He worked with us for two-and-a-half days working his ass off to protect my life, and then decided to shoot me in the back of the head while I was in a car,” he says. “That’s kind of the fun of this.”
And when players test the security of the servers used to assign targets and record kills, Aliquo hardens his firewalls but doesn’t kick offenders out of the game.
“It would be very easy to be like, if you hack the website, you’re gonna get kicked out of the game, but I find these experiences are most powerful and most effective when they really mimic the real world as much as possible,” he says.
Of course, Aliquo’s side projects have also helped him learn to grab the attention of the media. News coverage of his food truck’s $666 burger helped bring customers for its infinitely more popular $6.66 burger, served without gold leaf.
“More than anything, the $666 burger was an advertising-marketing thing for the truck itself,” he says. “The cost of it is completely arbitrary, so it’s super easy to make the world’s most expensive burger–you just make a burger, and say it’s the most expensive burger.”
Only a few of the expensive burgers sold, all to wealthy diners who were in on the joke, he says. Although a few media outlets reported a first sale to a wealthy buffoon named Lance Brody, who was pictured enthusiastically biting down on the sandwich, Brody was actually a costumed Aliquo, he says.
“It’s very easy to get press coverage, is what I learned,” he says.
The real challenge for many companies, though, is learning to trust fans to take some control of advertising campaigns–something many brand managers still struggle with, especially when a Twitter or Instagram hashtag takes an unexpected turn.
“You have to be okay with people messing with your stuff a bit,” says Aliquo. “It is difficult to get brands to assimilate that information, but here and there, they’re getting a little bit smarter. They’re realizing that the rules are very porous, and they have to play with them and not make them.”