Bumbling in Boston
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/4/2007 7:00:00 PM
I'm sure I'd be as aggravated as my pals in Boston were about Cartoon Network's now notorious viral promo campaign. Needless to say, the marketing wizards behind the stunt should have thought it out better. They might have figured that, in a post-9/11 world, a bunch of blinking magnetic devices, portraying a character from the channel's animated show Aqua Teen
Hunger Force flashing the middle finger, placed conspicuously around the city, could be mistaken for terrorist devices, causing shutdowns on roadways and subways.
Still, it's fair to say the folks at Interference Marketing, who have done work for everybody from General Electric to HBO, were simply being too cool by half, and the cooler heads at Cartoon Network who hired them should have seen how this marketing play could backfire.
Now we can add the “Aqua Teen Hunger Incident” to the cautionary tales of guerilla marketing gone awry. Indeed, just by the nature of something being “viral,” of attempting to orchestrate spontaneity, there are always inherent risks.
Even so, there is a more important takeaway than that of a viral campaign that became a virulent virus. We should all take a deep breath and think this through. Lost in all the uproar is the reality of a much larger risk.
This incident is just as much an indication of how, in the post-9/11 world, there's a tendency to needlessly hamper freedom of expression instead of wisely focusing security resources on the real threats that exist in the world today. The overreaction by the authorities to a stunt gone bad is part of the same governmental mind set that too often attempts to muzzle the media in entertainment, as well as news.
This may seem like a bit of a leap. Granted, it doesn't help, seeing all the implications of this incident, that Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, who had been paid a few hundred bucks to place the promo boxes around Beantown and then were arrested on disorderly-conduct charges, behaved like total knuckleheads. At a press conference, they decided to talk about Afros and mullets, instead of offering an apology and a cogent defense of their actions.
Still, the government authorities involved are guiltier of their own conduct violation: overreacting to a silly stunt. The arrests of those two twentysomethings, and all the chest-thumping over the incident by a raft of politicians—Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. John Kerry—seems part of the “best defense is a good offense” strategy.
I can understand the tendency to react excessively in Boston. It was from that city's Logan Airport that terrorists boarded the two flights which, on 9/11, crashed into the Twin Towers.
Nevertheless, don't the Boston authorities, who look like a bunch of Keystone Cops in their overreaction, still seem sadly ill-prepared to prevent an actual large-scale attack?
C'mon, the same guerilla campaign had begun two weeks before in a raft of other cities, and nobody else thought they'd stumbled on a bunch of devices worthy of Jack Bauer-style attention.
Cartoon parent Turner Broadcasting was doing what it had to do to clean up a public-relations mess by agreeing to pay the city of Boston for the full costs of the scare. But let's not lose sight of the greater danger present in Boston last week, where the reaction speaks to something more pervasive—and arguably more viral.
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
This marketing campaign demonstrates aspects of poor execution, but
this same activity went unchallenged in how many cities before "Bean
Town''s" finest went overkill?
Viral marketing only works where there is an element of mystery, of
surprise, otherwise where does the element of delight come from? The
sense of being part of the "in" group who gets the joke?
This particular channel is targeted to the most difficult to catch and
hold demographic there is. What appalls me about the coverage of this
event, as viewed via cable from overseas, is the fact that America has
bought into the most appallingly ''virulent'' marketing campaign of the
last 20 years. That campaign is the Current Administration''s "War on
Terror". In this war, there seems to be an overarching belief in the
infallability of information masquerading as facts, which all too quickly
trumps common sense.
The saddest casualties of the "War on Terror?
The assult on the senses - that is, common sense and a sense of
America, I love you passionately, but you need to get over it really
quickly, otherwise the purported bad guys really will have beaten you.
Please, don''t let that happen!
L Caldwell - 2/10/2007 1:19:00 AM EST
Thank you for calling a spade a spade in this marketing incident. This should be used as a wake up call to our coward politicians to point to when defending our freedoms here at home. This was not a National Security emergency, but merely an over reaction by our paranoid government to what is rightfully allowed by the constitution. If we all sit silent and "learn from this that it could be taken the wrong way", then we have learned the wrong lesson. We will have learned that it's OK to give away our freedom of expression in order to appease someone else's fear of that expression. This incident illustrates how the reaction can cause more harm to an area than the initial incident. Roads and bridges were closed and traffic was disrupted by the reaction, not the device to begin with. The back slapping that went on afterwards was even more disgusting in its naked attempt to continue the culture of fear being pushing by our government.
If nothing else, this shows the terrorists the best way to disrupt any American city of their choosing. Simply stir up the fear and let the government shoot their own citizens in an attempt to "save" us. Congratulations Boston, you have demonstrated to the world exactly what America has become. Shame on you Sen Kerry for being loud when you should stay silent and for being silent when your voice of moderation is most sorely needed. Shame on you Gov. Patrick for not recognizing the situation for what it was and admitting that a mistake may have been made in your state's reaction plan. And shame on Boston Mayor Menino for not immediately calling for an investigation into why patrol officers, bomb specialists, and terrorism specialists all failed to recognize a sign for being nothing more than a sign, then scaring the public without reason. When a person needlessly shouts "fire" in a crowded theater, they are arrested for inciting a riot. When a policeman does the same thing, he is given a commendation.
Dan - 2/7/2007 12:44:00 PM EST
I couldn't agree more.
Bottom line, it was a bunch of mistakes. Maybe the Turner folks should have predicted others might see odd objects on bridges and such and get freaked out, maybe the cops should have been smarter about recognizing it as the publicity stunt it was.
Have we so lost our senses of humor and ability to realize that people are people and mistakes will happen that we have to rage with righteous indignation when something goes wrong? Both sides were well intentioned; I don't believe Turned intended to scare anyone. Mistakes in judgment were made. Let's step back, relax, have a good laugh, be happy there wasn't a real danger and nobody got hurt. And be done with it. (And don't be too worried that taking a "get over it" attitude will "open the door" to others: the publicity around this means that we're all on notice that these stunts could cause folks to freak out. So the next person who tries it could be dealt with more harshly.)
I don't watch Comedy Central, had never heard of the show before, and was myself somewhat inconvenienced by the traffic it caused. And then had a good laugh about it all.
Dan - 2/5/2007 10:46:00 PM EST
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