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

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While he doesn’t outwardly pull the 9/11 card regarding the Turner tiff, Julian Aldridge, President of Carat’s word-of-mouth subsidiary agency Ammo, does agree with Hughes that while buzz was technically created in Boston, the concept and execution were surely flawed. “From an industry perspective, for people who are doing grassroots or guerilla marketing, it was just an ill-conceived idea,” Aldridge states. “We have a very simple tenet that says anything that we’re doing like this, we call them “insurge” tactics, where we’re going to places where there might be large groups of influencers, and insurging the brand surprisingly, but relevantly. Relevant does not include fake terrorism, which probably wasn’t the intention [in Boston], but that’s what happened.”

Aldridge points out a recent word-of-mouth/guerilla effort from Ammo, a promotion for EA’s Godfather game, which like Hughes and Half’s effort, got the message out without being a threat to the populous. “We had a campaign with oranges for Electronic Arts, and we knew those were never going to cause an issue. We made absolutely certain that we had teams clearing up after us, so that they were there, they made the impact, people picked them up during rush hour, and then we tidied up to make sure we weren’t causing a public nuisance. That’s just what the industry has to do. Otherwise, you get ridiculous measures which get put in place because somebody’s just being daft.”

But can being “daft” still fall under free artistic license? And more importantly, if the agencies and advertisers are now fineable for creativity, no matter how misguided, where does the marketing community have to draw the line when it comes to launching more innovative, subversive campaigns? According to Sproule, the Boston does carry precedent in this arena. “There’s definitely a precedent here…I don’t know any reason why a municipality couldn’t pass a law that would in fact say, ‘in these certain circumstances, we are going to fine the person who does this for some amount of money to pay for this’… but I’m not aware of anything along those lines that has to do with creating a public panic.”

There’s a delicate balance between art and marketing in legal issues such as this, but legal eagle Sproule says the First Amendment is still a valid weapon in the battle. “It’s the one thing that comes up in all of this that is hanging in the background,” he says. “It’s particularly important, and you have to divide it up into somebody who’s purely a graphic artist who’s doing something just for the sake of art, and a marketer. Constitutionally, the Supreme Court has said that we do apply different standards as far as commercial speech—which is basically any sort of speech that is intended to be part of a business transaction or advertising—and all the other speech, which is sometimes called political speech or free speech. We protect political or free speech much higher, and artistic expression falls into that category as well.”

Sproule continues, “So I could see where a graphic artist did the exact same thing, and even if there was a law that Boston could point to and say, ‘oh no, you do this and we could fine you for our cost’, the graphic artist probably would have a reasonably strong First Amendment defense to that and say, ‘no, you can’t apply that law to me because I have a right to go into a public space and to express my viewpoint—whatever that is—and I’ve done that through my art.’ Maybe again, [they’re] reliable for the damage [they] might’ve caused, but to throw on another $500 million or whatever the huge numbers that Boston is looking for—something for a graphic artist that is obscene, and even for a big corporation is a big number—to throw that onto me for having made what I’m saying is political speech is unfair. And I think that the courts would say that.”

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