Boston Shut Down by Viral Marketing

A marketing firm engaged by Turner Broadcasting’s otherwise-awesome "Adult Swim" tv programs set up a bunch of kooky, semi-obscene Lite-Brite displays throughout 10 American cities. It was a guerilla WOM campaign for the cable program’s "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" cartoon. Here in Boston, the locals went ape. "IT’S A BOMB! SHUT DOWN THE CITY!" Certainly a firememe was ignited online, and many marketing/advertising books are on the case. (I’ve also used this li’l kerfluffle to try out the new Technorati "WTF" function.)

I am not going to comment on whether or not this campaign was a good idea. It depends on whether you think "any press is good press" and personally my opinion on that age-old question tends to change with the winds. I am also not going to bother opining about the fact that the residents of Boston (cradle of American democracy! home of the original Minutemen!) reacted much more frenziedly than the citizens of the 9 other "target" cities. What’s interesting to me is the reaction of our young staffers, here in our HQ office.

These are children of 9/11. Many of them were in high school when the Towers fell. The first years of their young adulthood were color-coded by the Homeland Security Alert system. Has this made them more sensitive to whiffs of terror? Has it made them less tolerant of poorly-designed marketing stunts that could be misconstrued, as happened here in Beantown?

Based on my anecdotal review of the email threads, most of these staffers tend to feel that the hoopla has been overblown — both by Boston officials and by the media. Terror threats? Fact of life. Move on.

That’s not to say that anyone thought that the original campaign was brilliant. Typical internal email:

"At first I thought this was a dumb hoax and a bad idea, that strapping any kind of device to a bridge was dumb. The more I hear the outrage though [the lead story on the Today Show? Really?], the more I feel like people are overreacting. This is what happens when you don’t have a runaway bride story to chase down."

(This led to a quick debate about "whether or not the Thundercats would have let something like this go down," but that’s another story.)

The Boston Globe (sub req’d) perceived a similar Generation Gap, in their coverage of the aftermath:

"The episode exposed a wide generational gulf between government officials who reacted as if the ads might be bombs and 20-somethings raised on hip ads for Snapple, Apple, and Google who instantly recognized the images for what they were: a viral marketing campaign."

Interesting, eh? The world of "CONTENT" has been micro-niched: most of us only see what we want to see, on TV, on the Web, on the iPod. Guerilla marketing like this represents one of the few remaining frontiers where marketers must be aware that their efforts will be received very differently by the many different types of people who walk the streets. Or drive the bridges.

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Posted on: February 1, 2007 at 11:05 am By Todd Defren
12 Responses to “Boston Shut Down by Viral Marketing”


  • google says:

    hello from google…

  • Todd Defren says:

    “It’s just art man… chill.”

    Classic. Thanks Tim.

    Honestly I can’t believe this story has had these kind of legs. We need hobbies.

  • Tim Verras says:

    What s most interesting here is the over-reaction in Boston. It’s real easy to assume that there is some reason (‘We lost more people to 9-11’) that Bostonians are were more sensitive to thing than people in the other cities but from what I can gather, I don’t think that’s really the case here. Not only was there no significant reaction in the 9 other cities where this happened, but some of the signs had been up in Boston 3 weeks prior to this yesterday (according to the USA today article linked above). This is too much of a gap to assume that there’s something in the Boston water.

    Rather, I think what we have here is more of a case of mob-mentality than anything. Some folks in important positions over-reacted in Boston and acted as an impetus for the larger, public reaction. It would be interesting to trace where this meme started and see if we can’t put some checks and balances in place to avoid mass panic.

    Homeland Security was surprisingly non-irate about it and was instead more concerned about the resources consumed by this incident, which is a perfectly valid point. After all, its hard to protect from and react to real terrorism when the cops are out chasing lite-brite boogey men. Really what we need to pay attention to here is the tendency of our security forces to overreact in situations like this. This could certainly be used to great advantage by intelligent terrorists. Chicken Little and all that Jazz. There needs to be a sage, philosopher, jester or someone to ensure that the lords don’t spite the peasants for the kingdom, as it were.

    But this is a PR blog so let’s talk PR. I’m paying close attention to how the lawyers are spinning this one and its kind of fun:

    Boston: AGAST! How could they even THINK of doing this!

    NYC: Er… we thought they were cool…. But now that you mention it, Boston, YEAH HOW COULD THEY DO THIS!!

    8 other cities: Eh?

    Homeland Security: WTF happened to all our resources on the East Coast?

    Turner: We had no idea this would happen. Honestly. Besides, its our 3rd party agency’s fault. Did we mention they’re from New York City?

    3rd Party Agency: We had no idea this would happen. Honestly. Besides, it’s the artists’ fault. Did we mention he’s an immigrant with a green card?

    Artists/Immigrant: We had no idea this would happen. Honestly. Besides, it’s just art man… chill.

    Real Terrorists: It took them 3 weeks to find glow in the dark spacemen bombs? Then they shut an entire city down for a day to ‘disarm’ them…. Interesting….

  • If people saw a poster for a phone box that was painted blue — they would never know the ad was for Doctor Who.

    Would they consider that a bomb as well?

  • Jin Woo says:

    Controversy sells! When the Las Vegas Stars, triple A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted a bigger fan base, they called on Jon Spoelstra, who convinced the owners to change the name to the 51s. All the media buzz led to the attention the team craved and continues to edge towards 400,000 in attendance each year. Might not be a lot by Major Leagues standards but in the minors, that’s huge. I think a little controversy that doesn’t harm anyone in the long run makes things interesting and shakes things up a little. Nothing is wrong with that. But agreed there are boundaries.

  • Oh, and to W. David…it is possible for the stunt to have been wrong AND for the show to benefit from the press resulting from it.

    These things are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  • Here’s what I don’t get about this whole thing: these things have been around the city for 2-3 weeks. And we know SOME people noticed (photos/videos of college kids stealing them).

    So, why was yesterday THE day that it became a big deal? Did it take that long for the first person over 29 (or whatever age) to notice? Or was it something else?

  • Todd Defren says:

    I respectfully suggest that you are mis-reading me, David.

    My opinions about whether “all press (MIGHT) be good press” has NOTHING to do with this particular flap.

    Not once in my post did I provide an actual opinion about whether I thought this was a good marketing tactic.

    There are THREE debates goin’ on here:

    1. Is all press good press?

    2. Was the Aqua-Teen stunt a good idea?

    3. Did Boston officials and media over-react?

    Here are my answers:

    1. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    2. Nope. Bad idea.

    3. Depends on who you ask: “the kids” think it’s all overblown, the “older folks” tend to think that the response was quite rational and that their outrage is justified. On this one, I tend to side with the Older Folks but do see where the Kids are coming from, too. Lite-Brites are “kewl.”

  • I stand by my earlier comments about your need to develop some ethical/moral standards in light of your response: this incident caused real panic here (don’t forget: several hundred of our friends and neighbors died in the planes on 9/11). To equate the real fears this stunt produced in Boston with the kerfuffle over Lonelygirl15 is way off base: get it through your head — some things are just WRONG, and shouldn’t even have been proposed, let alone carried out…

  • Todd Defren says:

    “People like you would do well to develop a moral compass.”

    Sheesh, lighten up, willya?

    First: who are “people like me”? Short, balding, big-nosed egomaniacs like me? PR people like me? If you’re going to be snippy, David, clarity is appreciated.

    But seriously, folks: a belief (or not) that “all press is good press” is not a barometer for morality.

    For example, SOME people believe that the press resulting from “failed” stunts like the Chevy Tahoe ads or Lonelygirl15 episode were GOOD for the people and/or brands involved.

    SOME people think that the press (much of it negative) was a net negative.

    I could be swayed either way: the Lonelygirl15 people seem to be doing okay (as described by that recent WIRED cover story) despite being panned originally for duping YouTubers about their authenticity.

    The Tahoe user-generated ads showed a brand’s willingness to open themselves up to conservationists’ hard-edged (and widely covered) ridicule: was that GOOD or BAD?

    Does believing that those press results might have been GOOD or BAD mean that I am a morality-deprived dink?

    Truth is – sometimes I think that those results were good. Sometimes I see how the negatives were pretty shitty, at the time.

    And sometimes I wonder why I get worked up over comments in my blog.

  • “I am not going to comment on whether or not this campaign was a good idea. It depends on whether you think “any press is good press” and personally my opinion on that age-old question tends to change with the winds.”

    – It’s that kind of relativistic ethics that I saw too much of when I was in the p.r. biz long ago: it was wrong, it caused panic, and people like you would do well to develop a moral compass: otherwise you’ll try some stupid trick like this and your client will pay the price.
    W. David Stephenson

  • Complete overreaction by Boston officials. Even if you weren’t familiar with ATHF, there is no way you should mistake these cartoons for bombs. Idiots!

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