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

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Boston wasn’t the lone town chosen for this Cartoon Network stunt, which entailed LED-infused devices being planted on buildings, under bridges and in other spots which would detonate to create a Lite Brite-style avatar of an “Aqua Teen” character. But the damage was done, as New York and other cities including LA and Chicago quickly gained notice of the effort, and the Big Apple was one of the first to subsequently confiscate the same devices scattered throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan last Thursday. “I don’t necessarily think what they were doing was looking for word-of-mouth,” Ammo’s Aldridge summates. “They were just trying to create little stunts and get some local PR and local interest. They got a lot more than they bargained for. This is closer to event marketing, except there was no real event. It’s closer to what PR companies specialize in.”

Of course, the ripple effect can be felt inward as well, as this Boston scare now serves as a cautionary tale for brands and agencies, something that can result in less brazen ideas and/or more careful planning. “What it might do is to get clients to think hard about who they employ to do these things, and not necessarily go with the cheap, fly-by-night options, like two kids in a garage who came up with a fun, wacky idea,” Aldridge adds. “I’m not saying that’s what happened this time…but the only positive thing I can really see coming out of this is that clients and companies are a little smarter and more strategic about what they do. The real conversation that comes about is how to engage influencers in a well thought-out manner as opposed to trying a little publicity stunt.”

As for Hughes, he’s seen better, smarter efforts in similar circumstances. “Other forms of media like IBM doing graffitti and MSN with their decals…even though those may have resulted in a fine, those were fines that resulted in huge media wins…and those types of things will continue to do well. The critical difference between these is that it’s crystal clear MSN’s and IBM’s campaigns could not create a panic (decal is a decal and graffitti is graffitti), and MSN and IBM handled it well, they didn’t make a mockery of City Officials and just paid the fine (well worth the buzz in those cases).”

And despite Turner’s willingness to pay restitution and regain their good standing as a corporate citizen, Sproule still says all parties’ buzz efforts worked against them. “To some extent, commercial speech is also protected, but not to the same extent. Potentially, Turner Broadcasting could make a similar claim, but my feeling is that the courts are probably not protecting Turner Broadcasting. But they might protect, and probably would protect, somebody who is really making or saying something that wasn’t commercial. I know the guys who did this stuff in Boston have been described as graphic artists, which is interesting since they’re clearly paid by Turner, so I don’t think this [defense] is going to help them. They don’t look so good.”

The hoopla around the stunt didn’t do any wonders for Aqua Teen’s ratings either. According to a report in the Associated Press, Nielsen Media Research findings claim that the cartoon averaged 386,000 viewers last week among its targeted demographic of 18-to-24-year-olds. The previous week, the show averaged a virtually identical 380,000 among young viewers.

Alrdidge himself nails the coffin with the Boston issue. “I don’t foresee this being in the news next week, and people will have forgotten about it once the next little media marketing or celebrity [issue] comes along.”

So much for old advertising adages. But while the buzz will surely go on, it seems in this case, that choosing a winner among Turner, Interference, and the city of Boston is damn near impossible.

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