Guerilla Gone Wild: Weighing in on the Advertising Aftermath of Boston’s Botched Promotion

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By now, the news of Turner/Cartoon Network’s botched Boston stunt to promote its show, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” has been covered ad nauseum, the shock value has receded, and the furor has been somewhat quelled.

But in the wake of the arrest of giggly rabble-rousers/co-conspirators Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky (pictured below) and their subsequent release, new developments and questions have arose in the week since—mainly spurred by Turner Broadcasting’s agreement to fork over $2 million in restitution to the city of Boston for law enforcement costs.

While the agency that concocted the scheme, New York’s Interference, Inc, wasn’t allotted the fine and Turner parent Time Warner footed the bill, what kind of precedent does this set for marketing culpability and the stifling of creative expression, especially when in this case, the only reasonable need for a fine—property damage—was minimal to none at all?

“I’m guessing that Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting’s viewpoint in offering to pay restitution, I see that as more of a public relations kind of thing,” posits Mike Sproule, partner at New York City law firm Akabas & Sproule. “They look really bad and they want to make up for it, because there isn’t really a strong legal argument, I don’t think, for the city to sue them for extra man hours.” Is it perhaps simply that the city of Boston just overreacted?
From another angle, in the post-9/11 era, the coexisting themes of safety and vulnerability are prevailing in our society, and with the heightened sensitivity and fear, a case like this one proves the notion of any buzz creating good buzz is antiquated—and sometimes even damaging if it’s based on a schism from popular opinion…as history dictates. “Dixie Chicks got lots of buzz when they said they were ashamed of George Bush 3-4 years ago,” recalls Buzz Marketing CEO and best-selling author Mark Hughes. “They received a ton of buzz as a result…but buzz resulting in a huge decrease in their popularity. It crossed the bounds of our zeitgeist…we simply want to be safe in an era of 9/11 reality.”

Hughes himself, though, is no stranger to taking risks in creating advertising gimmicks and garnering buzz. During his tenure in the early days of Half.com in 1999, the exec helped convince the town of Halfway, Oregon to re-brand itself as his company’s namesake in return for $100,000 and donated computers. It was a move that eventually catapulted Half into the mainstream and resulted in an eventual acquisition by eBay a year later.

But as bold and intriguing as said campaign was, it was generally innocuous; its impact was positive, and its creators’ intentions seemed fairly altruistic—something that Hughes argues can’t be said for this Boston fiasco, especially judging by the behavior of its masterminds. “The most important thing is how the agency and these two sub-contractors are handling it,” he claims. “Interference did the slimy Sony Ericsson campaign on the Empire state building, and now this. But most importantly, the people they hired have zero remorse.”


(photo courtesy of Associated Press)

Hughes outlines a more constructive solution that perhaps would’ve worked better than the blatant derision offered by the main players involved. “The best thing these guys, Interference, and Turner could do is say, ‘We didn’t mean to create a public situation, we were only trying to do some innovative marketing. We’re sorry if we created any issues. National security and personal safety is just as important to us as it is to the city of Boston and America, and we apologize for causing any issues of misunderstanding.’ The above sample quote…would be the right way to address the situation, but the attitude they are taking underscores their lack of intelligence. The bottom line is that Americans don’t like to have their personal safety taken lightly or screwed with…if you don’t understand this concept in today’s post 9/11 world, you shouldn’t be in marketing.”

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