Boston's Recent Marketing Prank Turned Terrorist Scare

No doubt many of you are already well aware of the ad-campaign-turned-terrorist-scare that rocked us in the city of Boston on January 30.  I'm a little behind the 8-ball in writing up my thoughts about it.  But since it is still coming up -- both in our team conversations here, and out in the world at large -- I thought it would be worth talking about, even a few weeks after the fact.

The redux of what happened:

In an attempt to promote its Cartoon Network show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," Turner Broadcasting positioned LED displays of one of the show's characters around significant city structures, including bridges and i-93, Boston's central artery. (See images of the devices here).

The question we've been debating internally, is: Was this good marketing?

I respond with a big, fat, "no way."  Because I, like the city of Boston took this prank very seriously.  I *want* the city to react the way it did to any suspicious activity.  I *want* to know that my city is willing to take action to protect its citizens from danger.  Frankly, I think marketers who disregard the sensitivities of a market or target audience are foolish.

Now, the counter point to this is that the cult audience of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" was not the least bit offended by this. And may even be delighting in all the scuttlebutt.  Or perhaps that the damages Turner pays Boston will actually be cheap for all the press they have gotten from the incident.

Regardless, I think a few conclusions can be drawn from this prank:

  • Boston (and other city and state governments) should watch social media. Similar campaigns ran in other metro areas to know incident.  If Boston had tuned into the online buzz, it would have known in advance that the devices were harmless.
  • Heck, Boston should be using the Web overall.  A few simple image searches would have identified the nature of the device when the first one was found, eliminating need for escalation.
  • Marketers have an incentive to be on the edge of ethical.  Today's media-jammed environment forces marketers (and their agency partners) to develop new ways to secure user attention, customize messages and compete with other campaigns.  This means some "innovations" may be risky, shocking, or downright unethical in an attempt to get ad-desensitized consumers to notice.
  • Now Turner has these two guys as its spokespeople.  Yikes!



re: Boston's Recent Marketing Prank Turned Terrorist Scare

Shar;With all due respect, I suspect you're reacting the way many people did, and the way -poor- marketers do; eg, without primary information.Specifically, have you actually seen one of the devices?It's a lite-brite. Even my 3-year old could see it wasn't a bomb. Heck, there's not even more than the famous FAA 30z of material there!See my posting on the topic (photo included), and perhaps you'll change your mind.(Bad Shar! Action without primary data = StupidMarketing!)Best to Laura from me.

re: Boston's Recent Marketing Prank Turned Terrorist Scare

Hey Kevin -- Thanks for your comment. I was hoping this post would spur some good debate. I have seen pictures of the device (if you click through the links I attached in the original post there are several pictures as well as some of the devices in various stages of being assembled or disassembled). But today you can't even take a bottle of water on an airplane (I've seen what those look like too). So I think I'd rather err on the "take extra precautions" side than wish we had.

re: Boston's Recent Marketing Prank Turned Terrorist Scare

Shar,Great post! As a Boston resident, I agree that it was proper for the city to take a serious approach to the situation.I think that one of the things that seems to get lost in this whole fiasco was the "marketing opportunity" lost to the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts.This was a perfect opportunity for the city and state to come out and push a positive message out to the rest of the county - city and state agencies worked together for a prompt response for what was considered at the time to be a threat, and that if this had been a real emergency, we were prepared, and we take public safety seriously.Instead, the city and state took a more spin control approach by labeling the ATHF campaign a "Terrorist Hoax" and attempting to ban ATHF and Adult Swim in Boston. And what is worse is that the City/State took $2 million from Turner and agreed not to hold them accountable but is still pursuing over 30 charges on the two suspects.Now, Boston seems like a city out of touch rather than a city that is prepared and focuses on public safety.-Mike

re: Boston's Recent Marketing Prank Turned Terrorist Scare

You know I would love to send them to jail just on the guys hair alone but I dont know all of the details maybe you can help me out. First was Boston told about this before it was done( by permit or anything eles) Was it done in other cities? and did it cause a city shut down? Let me know the true story as you know it.

re: Boston's Recent Marketing Prank Turned Terrorist Scare

To me this is just a collision between two forces that haven't really collided before. It'll likely happen again... 8-)- Guerrilla Marketing. It can be good and really get you noticed, or it can go to far... fail and/or backfire.- Counter-terrorism efforts that focus on "rules" versus logic. 100% black or white versus a truly intelligent analysis of the situation.Just a thought.Charlie

re: Boston's Recent Marketing Prank Turned Terrorist Scare

as Charlie points out, definitely an interesting collision of two forces coming from different perspectives. as media fragmentation and technology continues to make consumers more elusive, it's sure to continue to happen as marketers get more creative in pursuit of their its April issue, PROMO magazine has a good interview with the guerilla marketers from Interference, Inc. will be live in early April online at also has a cool trivia game about guerilla marketing and other tactics: