Marketing Meets Bad Judgment
Outdoor advertising butted heads with homeland security in Boston on Wednesday when a late-night cable TV adult cartoon's ads hung in public locations were mistaken for potential bombs. Two individuals, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, were arrested separately on charges of placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. They face up to five years in prison and potential fines for restitution. The small devices, reported to be about the size of a laptop computer and depicting with lighted dots a character from Adult Swim's "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," caused a panic leading to the shutdown of area bridges and highways, as well as two arrests and the destruction of at least one device by bomb squads.
Turner Broadcasting System, a division of Time Warner and parent of Cartoon Network, on which the Adult Swim overnight block runs, commissioned a company called Interference to place the magnetic signs in 10 major U.S. cities. The signs had been in place for two to three weeks. In addition to Boston, cities included Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Los Angeles; New York; Philadephia; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Seattle. Interference has since been ordered to remove the signs.
The issue at stake is the lack of communication surrounding the fiasco. "What do you say about something like this? It's a great example of focusing on your target demographic and for that it should be applauded, though obviously somebody has to have a talk with somebody else about technique," says Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group. "It appears that the people at whom this was targeted had little problem making the connection but the placement leaves much to be desired." He adds that the news storm could be bonanza in terms of free press for the show's planned feature film release on March 23, if you accept the maxim that no publicity is bad publicity. "Look at all the free coverage this is getting."
Thomas Menino, Boston's mayor, has stated that he intends to recoup from the suspects and Turner the estimated $500,000 it cost to mobilize state, federal, and local bomb experts and terrorism analysts. He would also ask the FCC to pull TBS's broadcast license. "It's all about corporate greed," Menino said in a Boston Globe report. "The people in the boardroom have some obligation also on this issue."
Turner attempted to control the fervor with statements in response. "The packages in question are magnetic lights that pose no danger. We regret that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger," the company said in a written statement. Phil Kent, Turner's chairman, added that the company appreciates "the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company would, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible." Asked if Tuner would reimburse the cities and states affected, Kent said, "We're certainly going to look at all the facts. We're a very responsible company and we try to do the right thing."
Public reactions to the campaign have included amusement as well as outrage. The news report notes that one person found a device during her daily walk near the Longfellow Bridge three weeks ago, kicking it and then picking it up. The individual, April James, noted that she thought the object looked like a bomb, but returned it to its spot near the path and continued her walk. Other accounts note that videos of the signs being placed have turned up on YouTube, and one sign somebody took from South Boston is being sold on eBay.
To explain and address the failure to communicate, Pombriant suggests an hour glass model of this situation: "In one half you have some hip marketers and their target audience, who may be isolated somewhat from the mainstream or simply not old enough to understand the impact of the ad placement. On the other side you have a larger society that has been conditioned by the marketing associated with the post-9/11 world. Between them you have a very narrow opening through which the sides see each other and possibly communicate." In short, he adds, "Sounds like a typical generation gap thing that's gone wild."
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