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2001 Interference CEO Quote Casts Ironic Light On Aqua Teen Campaign

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Poses Rethink Of Guerrilla Marketing Guidelines

Having grown up in a city that faced and also had terrorist attacks, Manchester UK, I've always been extra vigilant when it comes to suspicious packages and objects. After a bomb scare I remember being concerned about walking through Manchester’s main railway station, Piccadilly station, on my daily commutes. Aqua_teen_imageTurner Broadcasting System Inc. made a major mistake when the company gave the go ahead on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing campaign that stalled traffic and caused massive problems for everyone in Boston yesterday. Signs were placed on bridges and public properties across 10 cities, including Boston; the signs have been displayed for 3 weeks, but could be confused for a bomb, as happened in Boston yesterday. (Adding to the confusion, two fake pipe bombs were discovered at the same time that the marketing signs were investigated, which must have heightened the bomb fears). Authorities have arrested two of the people who placed the Aqua Teen signs under bridges, and are publicly asking Turner to pay for the cost of the massive police and first responder reaction. Mayor Menino estimated the costs would exceed over $500,000. (see this article on the Boston Globe, Froth, Fear and Fury) The Aqua Teen show and Turner have publicly apologized for the campaign and are working to take down all of the signs across the U.S. Conducting a search on Technorati, I found a lot of comments from the MySpace Generation, they are interesting to read: Brian aged 20 from Tennesse said:

"If an Aqua Teen fan had been on the Boston police force, could he or she have recognized the Mooninites and stopped the insanity sooner? Maybe, but maybe not. Because how dumb is it of Turner Broadcasting if they did in fact place these at bridges and subway stations in this post-911 era? We can't even take more than 3 ounces of Mr. Bubble on a plane, how did they assume some funky-looking electronic devices left in prominent spots in the city would pass unnoticed? (Although most of them apparently did, in the 9 other cities where this marketing scheme was supposedly tried.)"

ticklebruises on Livejournal wrote:

"So apparently the bomb scare/hoax in Boston January 31st was part of a guerilla marketing campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Somebody's getting very fired."

Mr. Coleman on LiveJournal wrote:

"It makes Boston look especially moronic for nobody in the police, etc., noticing these things for THREE WEEKS! Everyone else saw them, except for people who SHOULD be looking for strange makeshift bomb-like things hanging from public bridges. I agree that Boston and Mass. officials overreacted, though closing traffic seemed a smart thing to do. I also agree that arresting the artist who made them BECAUSE HE WAS PAID BY THE COMPANY WHO CAME UP WITH IT is insane. They're going crazy... But then I also agree that Turner should reimburse the city for the $500K wasted looking for these things. I'm sorry, but if you put up a device with wires and batteries hanging off it underneath major throughfares WITHOUT NOTIFYING THE AUTHORITIES or even OBTAINING A PERMIT to do so, you are a class-A dumbass. Seriously, what were they thinking?"

Dood Monkey Radio wrote:

"It's really a sad thing in this day and age we have such a knee jerk reaction. In no other city where this marketing campaign occurred was there such a reaction. My biggest fear now is these two graphic designers are going to pay the price for a corporate market campaign gone bad. And a message to city officials. Let these guys go!! If you want blood then go after the executives who made this decision. And pull your head out of your ass! Quit scaring the public."

Brigid on Livejournal wrote:

"People are organizing to picket at the statehouse tomorrow, since they feel that the guy who was arrested was wrongly so. personally, i really doubt that Turner is going to cover this poor guy's legal bills...while it was a stunt that was kind of stupid, the fact it took 3 weeks for our city to completely flip out over it is even worse. i vascilate between finding it hard to believe or being terrified that absolutely -no- police noticed these things for three weeks, even i saw one of them (the one near mgh) a couple weeks ago and my job isn't to notice when blinky things are hanging off of bridges and underpasses. i really think that this situation made our govt look -so- bad, especially in light of the press release by Turner stating the little guys had been up for 3 now that boston looks entirely stupid on multiple levels, of course someone needs to pay...and who better than an artist who doesn't have the attorney general on his side."

John Brownlee from Wired has some thing to say about the events:

"This entire thing was very funny and wonderful up until the point that freelance artists hired to do an advertising campaign started being arrested. Then, it just became disgusting. There's no other way to say this: the City of Boston had a panic attack over something that was just obviously innocuous and meant in good fun. The 'potential explosives' the Bomb Squad scrambled around the city to blow up were essentially Lite-Brites. This is a fantastically absurd example of how the highly politicized paranoia of September 11th has come at the cost of any degree of common sense, let alone a sense of fun. Peter Berdovsky is in jail right now because politicans have so terrorized their own constituencies that pictures of cartoon characters are now considered genuine terrorist threats."

An editorial in the Boston Globe puts it in perspective, "Paralyzed by a gimmick", stated;

Public safety personnel may have overreacted; local bloggers apparently identified the guerrilla advertising campaign early on. But it's hardly surprising if others who weren't in on the gag were suspicious. As a rule, first responders are left little choice but to assume they are facing a legitimate threat.

Whether you agreed with the authorities reaction or not, the campaign will have lasting effects on the guerilla marketing industry. Remembering the recent discussion about ethics and a code for marketers for managing word of mouth marketing campaigns in light of the FTC ruling and Wal-Mart blog scandal, it seems that the industry and marketing community needs to come up with a better ethics code for managing guerrilla marketing campaigns. As this was not a word of mouth effort, in terms of having individuals talk to other people, but signs placed on bridges and public property, I think we need a different set of guidelines that marketers can use to help them avoid such public relations disasters. Here's a review of some of the ethics guidelines from the Word of Mouth Marketing association;

Ethics Issues 1) Honesty of Identity 2) Have we repudiated and forbidden all forms of shill, stealth, and undercover marketing? 3) Does everyone working on our behalf use their true identity and disclose their affiliation with our company and agencies? 4) Do we forbid the blurring of identification in ways that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individuals with whom they are communicating?

And the ethics code from my own association, the American Marketing Association, I am the Immediate Past President of the Boston chapter of the AMA, states:

Marketers must foster trust in the marketing system. This means that products are appropriate for their intended and promoted uses. It requires that marketing communications about goods and services are not intentionally deceptive or misleading. It suggests building relationships that provide for the equitable adjustment and/or redress of customer grievances. It implies striving for good faith and fair dealing so as to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process. Citizenship-to fulfill the economic, legal, philanthropic and societal responsibilities that serve stakeholders in a strategic manner. · We will strive to protect the natural environment in the execution of marketing campaigns. · We will work to contribute to the overall betterment of marketing and its reputation.

If this campaign had appeared on commercial billboards, I don't think there would have been any problem, but Turner placed the signs on public property without notifying the authorities, and in the process brought the reputation of the marketing profession into disrepute. I think one simple rule for guerrilla marketers should be that if you are placing your promotional materials on property it's a good idea to notify the owners or caretakers of what you are doing. In the process you will not have to reveal the campaign to the public, but you will discover if your campaign works for the property owners. Point four, from WOMMA's list of questions for dealing with WOM ethics states: Do we forbid the blurring of identification in ways that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individuals with whom they are communicating? I think that people were confused and misled with the Aqua Teen Hunger campaign, as it was unclear initially in the City of Boston as to the identity of the people who placed the signs. If you are going to run a guerrilla marketing campaign, it pays to think carefully about who is going to be affected by your campaign beyond the people you are targeting. I think the Turner Broadcasting/Aqua Teen Hunger signs are going to affect a lot of marketing campaigns across the country and give marketing people some pause in how they implement such campaigns and rightly so. Update 2/6/07: Boston Interference suspects filmed chaotic response. The Boston Herald reports that the two suspects in the Aqua Teen Hunger Force campaign were caught on video filming the police response to one of the bomb 911 calls.