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The Ad Campaign That Bombed

BU profs on how a guerrilla marketing effort went terribly wrong

In a scenario that could be the plot of a science fiction novel, Boston law enforcement authorities on Wednesday closed bridges, subways, and interstate highways after finding suspicious devices that were later revealed to be part of marketing campaign for a cartoon television show. The devices, small lighted billboards depicting characters in the television show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, were found on bridges, construction beams, and buildings in nine locations. Boston Police and other law enforcement agencies responded swiftly, as did the local media, whose rapid-fire reports on radio, television, and online alarmed area residents, as well as many parents of Boston University students. The incident enraged local authorities, who say that more than $500,000 was spent on the deployment of bomb experts and other personnel, inconvenienced thousands of people, and led to the arrest of two young artists employed by the guerrilla marketing campaign. 

What happened? How did a way-too-hip guerrilla marketing campaign for a silly cartoon show end up causing so much anger, anguish, disruption, and expense? BU Today put that question to faculty experts in five professions that played key roles in the fiasco: an advertising executive, a police chief, a journalist, a lawyer, and an artist. This is what they said. What’s your opinion?

Christopher Cakebread, College of Communication assistant professor of advertising, on marketing.

This type of guerrilla advertising is designed to gain attention in an overly cluttered communications world. It’s designed to be nontraditional and a

Chris Cakebread. Photo
by Kalman Zabarsky

little edgy. I think part of the reaction in this case was due to a generation gap in how advertising is understood. But I think it’s also the paranoia of the times that we live in after 9/11. The threat of terrorism just has everyone on edge.

Will this stunt work? Let’s put it this way — if in six weeks or so, the ratings of Aqua Teen Hunger Force are up and Turner Broadcasting can then sell ads for more money, then it worked. If Boston sues Turner Broadcasting and it becomes a long-term negative view of its network and its broadcasts, then it didn’t. Everything in communications and advertising is about trying to gain awareness. Guerrilla marketing is a new term for an old adage, which is: try to gain some attention for my product or service.

If it’s successful, is that good or bad? No, it’s not good. But how do you legislate public taste? I think our society has become far more coarse. Younger people in particular — nothing offends them, at least not yet.

Thomas Robbins, chief of the Boston University Police Department, on the actions of Boston’s law enforcement agencies.

Thomas Robbins. Photo
by Kalman Zabarsky

You have to put it in context of where these items were located and how they were perceived by the people who first viewed them. You had, from all accounts, a circuit board and some sort of tape wrapping with batteries in locations that one would normally think would be prime for a terrorist threat or attack, like under a bridge. In my opinion, the police acted exactly right — isolate the area, bring in the experts who can identify and disrupt the package, and do a further investigation. It was a terrible disruption for people, but certainly the other side of the coin is that if they didn’t act that way, it could be a lot worse.

Prior to 9/11, the incident would have been portrayed differently in terms of public reaction and media reaction. However, the standard operation for the police would be much the same — if you have an unidentified package that seems to be a threat, you call in the technicians to defuse it, disrupt it, or further identify it.
I feel strongly that the reaction and response of the public safety personnel involved was just the right response that you want. It disrupts travel, but it’s unavoidable.

Sasha Norkin, COM associate professor of journalism, on the media fallout.

You’re looking at a situation where roads are shut down, the bomb squad’s been called out. The media’s job is to cover what’s happening, and in a

Sasha Norkin. Photo
courtesy of COM

situation where the city reacted to what it perceived as a serious problem, I don’t think the news outlets overreacted.

In news, you want to be first on the story; you want to get the information out as quickly as possible. Whenever you have a situation with that many people in a city being affected by something, when roads are shut down and there’s a massive police presence looking at something that could be a public threat, the natural reaction is ‘Geez, we’ve got to be all over this.’

It may seem like an onslaught, but is the public in Boston better served by seeing normal network programming during the day or by knowing that Storrow Drive is affected or that they’re not going to be able to get across the bridge? The job of a news station is to send that information.


David Rossman, professor and director of the criminal law clinical programs at the School of Law, on the legal repercussions.

David Rossman. Photo
by Fred Sway

Massachusetts law makes it a crime to place a “hoax device” somewhere with the intent to cause “anxiety, unrest, fear, or personal discomfort.” A hoax device would be, in this case, something that looks enough like a bomb to fool a reasonable person. A conviction under this law carries a maximum term in prison of five years and also allows the court to order that all the financial loss suffered by the government be reimbursed.

Not only the people who placed the devices themselves would be guilty, if they had the sort of intent the law requires. The people who hired them to do so would also be guilty, if they shared the state of mind, or intent, that’s at issue.

So, the case will likely boil down to what the prosecution can prove about the intent, or actual motivation, behind placing these devices. If there’s a reasonable doubt about whether the devices were put there simply to gain publicity, without any thought whatsoever to the trouble they would cause (the “I was too stupid to foresee what would happen” defense), then there won’t be a conviction. On the other hand, if the trial produces enough evidence that the people who placed the devices and the folks who hired them (on up through the chain of corporations as high as it goes) both knew about the risk of fear they’d cause and intended to cause it, then a conviction and punishment will follow.

The two guys who placed the devices are also charged with disorderly conduct. In order to convict them of that crime, the prosecution doesn’t have to show they actually intended to cause fear, just that they “recklessly created a risk of public alarm.” That’s a lot easier to prove.
It will be interesting to see who else, if anyone, the government charges in this case. The actual people who hired the folks who planted the devices are obvious targets. A more ambitious choice would be the actual companies themselves. Corporations are only rarely prosecuted in state courts, but a prosecutor might be able to make out the elements of corporate criminal liability here if it was corporate policy to create a false emergency to get publicity.

Hugh O’Donnell, professor of painting in the College of Fine Arts, on uncommon art and common sense.

I think there was definitely an overreaction. However, I also don’t think we

Hugh O’Donnell. Photo
by Frank Curran

need to run around like guerrillas putting art on trains or on bridges when we have dedicated spaces where people congregate and feel proud of the work they see around them, as long as they are actually involved in the choosing of the work. Graffiti art is self-serving, and corporations have recently latched onto this.
The ideal that I’m looking for here, and that I teach to my students, is artists knowing that they are working within a meaningful context through research. They don’t need to be running around in the night like cloak-and-dagger. It just isn’t necessary.

Click here to listen to a WBUR report on the marketing stunt.

Click here to  watch a YouTube video about making and installing the devices.

Chris Berdik (cberdik@bu.edu), Paul Heerlein (heerlein@bu.edu), Art Jahnke (jahnke@bu.edu), and Jessica Ullian (jullian@bu.edu) contributed to this report.