Costa Rica's Annual Pilgrimage Goes Viral

Taking Traditional Trek Digital Wins Top Award at Volcan Ad Festival

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NEW YORK ( -- It sounds like the slacker's version of a religious pilgrimage -- substituting a long, arduous trek to a holy site with an effortless stay-at-home digital version. But the Catholic Church welcomed the idea when Costa Rica's Minister of Health last year banned the country's famous, annual 228-year-old pilgrimage along with all other major public gatherings at the height of the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

Traditionally more than 1 million of Costa Rica's population of 5.5 million does the annual walk to the Basilica Virgen de Los Angeles, a huge church in Cartago, a small town outside the capital city of San Jose. When the government controversially outlawed the popular religious gathering on public-health grounds, the Catholic Church's official radio station Radio Fides appealed to its new ad agency for help. Jotabequ Grey's solution, taking the centuries-old tradition online, won the award for best ad at last week's Volcan ad festival in Costa Rica.

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Jotabequ created a site called (Spanish for "Virtual Pilgrimage") where people could upload their photographs, either directly or via Facebook, and share their promises of faith and the wishes that inspired their journey to the church. Then they chose a pair of shod feet to do the online walking for them. There were about a dozen footwear options "including mens' shoes, womens' shoes and Michael Jackson from Moonwalk," said Alexander Obando, general creative director at Jotabequ. (The agency's name spells the Spanish letters JBQ, representing the shop's three founders).

The site, still live, is a moving parade of photographs of the pilgrims (or sometimes their dogs, or cartoon characters), mounted on shoes ranging from comfy sneakers to yellow stilettos. The most devout can choose to walk all the way on their knees. Their promises appear overhead, ranging from world peace to finding a grandmother's dog. Most fall somewhere in between, like doing well in school, getting a job or wishing for their family's good health, Mr. Obando said. The agency added a filter to keep out insulting messages, but decided to allow some less-serious ones, such as rooting for a favorite soccer team's victory, to help encourage young people to participate, he said.

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Almost 15,000 online pilgrims signed up, a small number compared to the real-life pilgrimage of past years but considered a good turnout in a country where digital penetration is still low, Mr. Obando said. As word spread, the site drew about 296,000 visits, and the average time spent was seven minutes per visit, considered extremely high for a Costa Rican web page. Catholic blogs wrote favorably about it. And the Romeria Virtual victory at the Volcan festival marks the first time the top prize at a Costa Rican awards show has gone to a digital ad, rather than a TV or radio commercial or a print ad, he said.

This year the real pilgrimage will resume, with many people walking 10 hours or more on Aug. 2 to get to the church (they only have to walk one way; pilgrims usually take the bus home, or call a cab). But the newly popular digital option will continue too, Mr. Obando said.

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