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Guerilla Gone Wrong

Who, where, when?

Cartoon Network, Boston, 2007


What did they do? Caused a bomb scare that shut down half of Boston.


Huh? I thought we were talking cartoons, not terrorists! Good point, but one that was lost on the Boston Police Department.


OK, so what happened? Cartoon Network hired a guerilla-marketing group to promote its Aqua Teen Hunger Forcefilm, based on the adventures of a milkshake, a packet of fries and a meatball.


Under cover of darkness, 38 magnetic, battery-powered LED signs, depicting a character ‘flipping the bird’ with no explanation, were put up at prominent public places across Boston. The next morning, a member of the public spotted one of the signs and, thinking it suspicious, alerted a policeman. Before you could say ‘terror alert’, the bomb squad was on the scene.


Did they defuse the situation? Ha ha, very funny. Well, not really: they responded with what The Boston Globe described as “an army of emergency vehicles”. Road and river rush-hour traffic was halted in the area, causing massive disruption and lengthy delays.


What did the media say? The finger of fun was pointed squarely at the authorities, which were seemingly not ‘down’ with surreal late-night animation or rogue street art installations.


TheBoston Globe said the “marketing gambit exposes a wide generation gap”, quoting one blogger who wrote: “Repeat after me: L-E-D. Not I-E-D. Get it?”


The Los Angeles Times also derided the reaction of Boston’s officials, an opinion reportedly shared by a large number of Boston locals and fans of the cartoon.


Meanwhile, Brandweek called the incident a “fiasco” and predicted it would “no doubt be followed by a reassessment of the potential price of what used to be known as a low-cost method to generate buzz”.


And what was the actual price? $2million and the executive vice president’s job.


Ouch! Cartoon Network and its guerilla marketers agreed to pay the sum to local and state agencies for costs incurred, while general manager and executive VP Jim Samples resigned “in recognition of the gravity of the situation that occurred under my watch”.


Jim had his chips then; what about the show?

Aqua Teen Hunger Forcehas gone on to become the network’s longest-running original series in its late-night Adult Swim programming. It’s also now the sixth longest-running American animated television series of all time.


So, what might they say if they could wind back the clock?

Do think outside the box; don’t leave an unmarked box in a public place…

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