Revelers enjoying the party, Epa Rei. Image by Renata Acioli

Quem não chora não mama! Segura, meu bem, a chupeta. Lugar quente é na cama. Ou então no Bola Preta” (If the baby doesn’t cry, he doesn’t get his pacifier).

The chorus of the classic samba song, written by Nelson Barbosa and Vicente Paiva, belongs to Rio’s most popular Carnival parade, Cordão do Bola Preta.

Originating in 1918, Bola Preta is an important part of Rio’s heritage and remains steeped in the region’s folk culture. The event also draws huge crowds. This year alone 2.3 million people attended, making it an enticing event for brands and marketers.

Besides Bola Preta, most of the city’s biggest parades, such as Monobloco, Empolga às 9 and Simpatia é quase amor, receive sponsorship from brands.

This year, beer brand Antarctica, in partnership with the bank Itaú and the marketing agency Dream Factory, sponsored all 485 of Rio’s Carnival parades. The Rio Times estimates that Carnival generates revenues of R$1.45 billion in Rio alone.

Carnival unbranded

Renata Correa dancing at the Bola Preta. Image by Raphael Crespo.

But branding and revenue only tell part of the story. Several smaller parades organized by young people across the country have emerged in response to the commercialization of Carnival. The focus of these parades isn’t brand appeal, but Carnival-inspired spontaneity and creativity.

Filmmaker Roberto Souza Leão is one of the organizers, though he doesn’t work alone. One of the essences of Carnival is its artistic collaboration, which means that Leão’s group, which he formed with his friends, collaborates on everything, from costumes to band rehearsals.

“We don’t have any pretension of transforming the parades into a business. This is the place and moment where we can have fun with our friends,” says Leão. “One of the requirements to join the group is to love the Carnival party.”

Carnival lovers

From 2005 to 2008, the group organized a boat parade called Se melhorar, afunda (Literally, “If it improves, it sinks”). The parade was held on a barge, which floated revelers from the nearby city of Niterói to Rio.

The event was a huge success but soon after it became famous, the organizers decided to jump ship.

Leão explained that with popularity comes commercialization, resulting in a loss of the sense of play and spontaneity that made it popular in the first place. By repeating the same parade year after year, it becomes a brand “and we don’t want it to,” says Leão.

Like many other Brazilians, Leão’s group opposes the commercialization of Carnival. “In Rio, it’s increasingly difficult to play in a parade. We need to register, to schedule a start and end time, and we’re given a designated place to perform,” he says. “It’s losing what we consider the most beautiful part of the party – the sense of spontaneity and the free celebration.”

The “O Centrão vai virar mar” party. Image by Pedro Esteban.

To maintain this sense of spontaneity and freedom, Leão’s group decided to adopt different themes for each year. After Se melhorar, afunda they organized Exalta Rei (“Glorify the King”), in honour of singer Roberto Carlos (known in Brazil as the King of Jovem Guarda music).

Given the group’s stance on brand endorsements, it should come as no surprise that they have also organized a protest against the commercialization of Rio’s Carnival in the form of another carnival party, aptly named “Êpa Rei” (“Oops, King”).

“Our generation discovered that we can ‘Carnavalizar’ (literally, “transform into Carnival”) different rhythms. The gist is this: leave home in costume, meet your friends, and play,” says Leão. “Each parade needs to be a unique experience.”

Saying no to social

Although Brazilian brands are increasingly looking to the web to spread their content, the focus of these non-commercial parades isn’t to engage people through social media – everything is still word of mouth.

“We don’t have to spread the word too much,” says Leão. We never divulge the date and time. And even when only using word of mouth, we begin with 15 people and end up with thousands.”

This year, the group adopted the theme Baianada, an expression used to honour the state of Bahia’s unique musical culture. During the parade, more than 100 participants entered Santos Dumont Airport – the second largest in Rio – where they danced and sang different Carnival songs.

Baianada playing in the Santos Dumont Airport. Image by Pedro Esteban

“We did it in a very spontaneous, funny and cheerful way, playing in a public space but respecting people and the airport infrastructure,” said Leão. “In fact, I would like to congratulate people from the airport because they understood the joke.”

Carnival is a unique celebration that brings people from all backgrounds together to revel in music and fantasy. It can be organized through social networks, take place at big venues or on the streets.

It can be funded by brands using digital and traditional ad campaigns or it can be organized independently, by people who want to wear funny costumes, meet friends, and follow the sound of the tambourines around the corner and be free.