Guerrilla Marketing in Post-9-11 America

2 02 2007

How does a low-budget guerrilla marketing campaign for the Cartoon Network shut down a major US city?  By letting people believe a terrorist attack is underway in Boston as police go on full-scale alert and start shutting down highways and bridges.  

That’s what happened last week in Boston when a stunt campaign involving metal boxes showing a character from “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” were mistaken for improvised explosive devices.

Apparently, the boxes – which resemble old Lite-Brite monitors – had wires and coils, and that’s enough to spread fear these days. After a 14-hour panic, police arrested two people for hanging the boxes in strategic spots across the city. Too bad the show wasn’t more popular with people over 20 or someone might have recognized the image of the cartoon character clearly displayed on front of the boxes. 

Mark Adamoyurka, the Boston resident who first reported the boxes to police, told the Boston Herald that he was simply being careful. “I was pretty sure it wasn’t a bomb. I thought it was a kind of an overreaction from the police, but I guess these days it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Adamoyurka said. “It looked like art, very bright and not threatening. Didn’t occur to me it would be a big deal.”

The event – or at least the effect it had on the city of Boston – drew major press coverage across the US and even on news channels abroad. That’s pretty impressive for a low-cost effort aimed at increasing media exposure for the show. The two “suspects” in the case were reportedly paid $300 each by Interference Inc. – a company that specializes in stunt marketing – to hang 40 boxes in hip and trendy areas around the city.  

The problem was that the marketing team allowed the situation to get way out of hand. The organizers should have come forward as soon as the police panic began. Better yet, they should have informed the police about the campaign before launching it so that people reporting “suspicious boxes” could be put at ease. Instead, one of the guys claims the executive running the show told him to remain quiet about the stunt even as the terror theory was gaining steam as more boxes were being discovered.  When the executive finally moved, he called the Cartoon network, not police, keeping the panic going even longer.

In the end, the Turner Broadcast Network, which owns the Cartoon Network, accepted full responsibility for the incident and promised to compensate the city for all the costs that accrued sending bomb squads to numerous locations. The city is reportedly seeking about $750,000 from the company.

So much for low-cost strategies. But then again, the price is a bargain for the immense amount of publicity the stunt managed to attract. But don’t try to sell the show in Boston. The mayor is already trying to get it banned.

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