Marketing Gimmick Goes Bad in Boston

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

A guerrilla marketing campaign for a cartoon show about a box of french fries and his milkshake pal set off a scare that nearly shut down Boston's commercial district yesterday, as bomb squads closed highways and two bridges in search of what turned out to be magnetic-light versions of the cartoon characters.

Turner Broadcasting, parent company of the Cartoon Network, said the small electronic circuit boards, which hang from girders and bridges, are part of a 10-city marketing campaign for the animated late-night television show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." Such guerrilla ad campaigns seek to place products in unexpected corners and count on those who spot the characters to "get" the gag.

But much of Boston was not in on this joke. The packages were discovered near the New England Medical Center, two bridges and a tunnel. Attorney General Martha Coakley said Peter Berdovsky, 27, of Arlington, Mass., and Sean Stevens, 28, of Charlestown, Mass., had each been arrested on a felony charge of placing a hoax device and a charge of disorderly conduct.

"We regret that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger," said an e-mail message released by Turner spokeswoman Shirley Powell. "They have been in place for two or three weeks in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco and Philadelphia."

The light boxes portrayed "mooninites," essentially juvenile delinquents from another galaxy making an obscene gesture.

Boston and Massachusetts officials were not amused. A train passenger spied the first magnetic object, which looked like circuit boards with protruding wires, attached to a girder under Interstate 93 in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. A police bomb squad responded and blew up the device, leading to the shutdown of a railway station and the highway. For a while, the Coast Guard blocked off a section of the Charles River.

"I am deeply dismayed to learn that many of the devices are a part of a marketing campaign by Turner Broadcasting," Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick said in a statement, vowing to consult with Coakley.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino told the AP he was ready to sue.

"It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme," Menino said. "I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today's incidents."

Bloggers were the first to notice that the boxes were not bombs but representations of late-night cartoon characters that have been around for six years. The lead character, Frylock, is a box of french fries and plays the straight man. Master Shake is a self-centered milkshake. Meatwad is, well, a wad of meat.

"Anyone recognize that?" asks BStu, who has a MySpace site. "I did. It's a Mooninite from Aqua Teen Hunger Force . . . that's what all this fuss is over."

The scare in Boston called to mind Orson Welles's CBS radio broadcast in 1938 of "War of the Worlds," which panicked listeners and triggered many calls to the police and the military. Some bloggers saw yesterday's events in a similar light, an unfortunate confluence of "idiot sensational media" and the "hilarious police overreaction."

And a corporate liability lawyer, R. Bruce Duffield of Brian Cave LLP in Chicago, argued that corporate free speech is protected and that "we're all too skittish in this post-9/11 era."

But W. David Stephenson, a former public relations executive now working as a homeland security adviser, said the world has changed and police must take such incidents seriously.

"It's amazing to me that Turner Broadcasting would think this is acceptable," Stephenson said. "They put these light boxes on bridges and tunnels, places you would clearly associate with terror attacks.

You just can't trivialize this," he said. "It's one of those moments where you just can't figure out what was going on in the brain of the advertising person."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company