Bumbling in Boston

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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 tobcrobins@reedbusiness.com