Guerrilla Marketing's Monkey Business

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Guerrilla marketing, a form of business named after hit-and-run warfare, normally only sounds dangerous. However, this February, when Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) decided to promote its Cartoon Network show Aqua Teen Hunger Force (ATHF) through a viral campaign, things got explosive. Lite-Brite-style advertisements of an ATHF character exhibiting a rude hand gesture turned Boston upside down when the fixtures, placed in high-traffic public areas of a number of major cities by an advertising agency, were mistaken for bombs. Hours of suspended transit services, multiple road closures, a highly publicized court appearance, and a $2 million settlement later, the questions remain: Was it all worth the buzz? In viral marketing, who gets the last laugh? "It would be hard to dream up a more appalling publicity stunt," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), in a written statement. "Whoever thought this up needs to find a better job." Whether he thought the campaign up or not, Jim Samples, president of Cartoon Network, stepped down as a result of the controversy. Although there is no doubt that the stunt caused serious inconveniences if not direct harm, if the goal of word-of-mouth marketing is to get consumers buzzing about your brand, TBS, a division of Time Warner, certainly got the job done. Hundreds if not thousands of articles and news broadcasts nationwide soon picked the story up. In a few days T-shirts proclaiming "ATHF Is the Bomb" and bumper stickers reading "Hoax Object" could be purchased online. In response to the success or failure of the campaign, Paul Rand, communications cochair for the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association, said, "Well, we're talking about it right now." ATHF's Nielsen/Net ratings did not rise the week following the scare; however, the buzz may drive more viewers to the box office when Aqua Teen Hunger Force: The Movie, based on the cartoon, opens in late March. Gareth Herschel, research director at Gartner, says that it is possible that the show, popular with the campus crowd, will get an even bigger boost due to its target demographic. A number of blogs and editorials blasted Boston's response to the campaign as an overreaction; no other city where the ads were planted had any kind of scare. When the two individuals directly responsible for the ads, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, joked about their haircuts with the court officials, it was clear that the campaign's message was irreverence. (Turner Broadcasting later issued a formal apology to the city.) Herschel says, "Sometimes, the louder the big talking heads scream, the better it is for you. They are going for the edgier, more countercultural type of audience, so it probably worked well for them." Despite the talk generated by the campaign, neither Herschel nor Rand condone its practices. Even if Boston's safety bureau did overreact, the time and attention spent by the city on the ATHF incident could have been concentrated on real dangers--a legitimate safety issue. It is clear that there are lessons to be learned. Rand says that the greatest flaw in the campaign was a lack of forethought. He says, "This example, more than anything, just crossed some boundaries of common sense." What should have been an obvious potential outcome was apparently overlooked. Rand explains that this should not happen, that common sense around operation and tactics should be used in all marketing efforts to prevent fault. This lesson is especially important for viral marketers. No matter whether deployed outdoors or on the Internet, viral campaigns are out of marketers' hands once released. The word-of-mouth element leaves the shape of the campaign almost completely in the hands of consumers. Herschel says, "I think we will continue to see viral marketing proliferate, because it plays to the connected social networking that people have established, but the dangers are huge."
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