Thursday, February 01, 2007

Psst, Marketers, Don't Mess With Homeland Security!

As I'm sure you've heard by now, a series of suspicious devices were found around Boston leading to concerns about a terrorist plot and the shutdown of major travel arteries, including "T" lines (Boston's subway system, the first in the nation), portions of Interstate 93, Storrow Drive (in my opinion, the essential roadway to know to navigate Boston), and even a portion of Charles river. The first device was found at Sullivan Square in Charlestown (since both Northeastern and Sullivan Square are on the Orange T line this caused a bit of inconvenience for folks coming into campus).

Of course, we now know this was part of a guerilla marketing stunt to generate buzz around the animated television series "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" which airs on the Cartoon Network (UPDATE: The show appears on Adult Swim which shares channel space with the Cartoon Network; Cartoon Network by day, Adult Swim by night). The devices were actually LED devices depicting a character from the show (flashing the middle finger, which is how they greet others; see these photos on BoingBoing).

Well, it worked to generate buzz (see the BlogPulse chart above), but perhaps not the kind that the marketing firm Interference, Inc., or its client Turner Broadcasting, were hoping for (NOTE: I believe I heard Interference was the marketing company involved on an NPR show this morning or in a newspaper article; could someone please confirm this?). According to the Metro, Thomas Menino, the mayor of Boston, called the stunt an "act of corporate greed" and promised to hold the executives accountable for the actions, including the $500,000 in public safety expenses it cost the City of Boston (from the Metro article it seems that the executives of Turner are on the hook and not necessarily the marketing firm). Two people have already been arrested, Peter Berdvosky and Sean Stevens, who are the two allegedly responsible for placing the devices in Boston. The penalty for placing such hoax devices is two to five years for every device found.

As a student in my class on WOM, Buzz, and Viral Marketing Communication stated, you'd think they would have notified the cities involved -- Boston, New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Franscisco, and Philadelphia -- that they were doing this (though I wondered what the City's response would have been). Turner Broadcasting has apologized for the stunt.

The Boston Globe wrote an interesting story where they reported a generation gap in the perception of the suspicious devices. According to the article, a 22-year old design student clearly knew that it was part of an advertising campaign, but a subway worker at the Sullivan Square T station didn't know what it was and called the police.

I did a little searching and came across an interview from 2001 with the CEO of Interference, Sam Ewen. Here's an excerpt:

Q: Guerilla marketing has that obtrusive element that can hurt a campaign too. What's the trick to make sure it's appealing and not annoying?

If you put the effort into the campaign, it isn't obtrusive at all. Of course, there is good and bad marketing. The goal is not just to be there but to be there at the right time and in the right place.

If you're on your way to work in the morning and someone hands you a free cup of coffee with a promotional message, that's something can catch your eye. But, we're not going to give you free tickets to a comedy club at 7:30 in the morning. Good guerilla marketers target you for who you are and what you like to do.
The interview was July 25, 2001, which is pre the 9/11 concerns and it looks like guerilla marketers need to take this into consideration as well.

This generational issue is pretty interesting to me. When I discuss various kinds of marketing tactics in class that many people (often 30+) seem to question (for example, some guerilla tactics or some stealth marketing tactics), many of my students (generally 18-24) are less concerned and suggest that "this is how things are" nowadays and "it's what you have to do to get noticed". This is clearly not a universal opinion among the students I've talked with but it's certainly not a minority opinion either.

This will certainly be a topic of discussion in my WOM, Buzz, and Viral Marketing Communication class tomorrow morning. It will be a great opportunity to distinguish "generating buzz" (a campaign designed to elicit talk about the topic of the campaign, but often the talk is about the campaign itself) from "word of mouth advocacy" (based on having a quality brand experience) which has been a topic of discussion in class and our readings. As I mentioned above, one of my students has already posted about this on our class blog. Keep an eye on it as students post their comments and other thoughts.

A couple other thoughts: if these devices were planted in nine other cities why didn't this cause the same concern in other cities? And according to the Metro, these devices may have been planted 2-3 weeks ago -- if this really was a homeland security concern, how come it took folks this long to find them?

UPDATE: Artists stage a protest in support of the two men charged thus far: Peter Berdvosky and Sean Stevens. Many suggest it's Turner, not the two individuals who were hired to place the devices, that are culpable.

UPDATE: Boston Globe reports that Interference Marketing Inc. told Peter Berdvosky to stay quite about his role in placing the devices because the campaign was inciting panic in Boston.

UPDATE: Read about how much faster individual citizens were in reporting the events relative to when mainstream media picked up the stories.

UPDATE: BBC News in the UK has picked up the story (hat tip to Justin Kirby).

UPDATE: Look at how much buzz Aqua Teen is getting compared to Turner and how little the marketing company is getting (Interference Marketing).