Don’t these people have something better to do (for you)?
A State Police bomb squad officer in Somerville removed a device from a McGrath Highway column on Wednesday. (CJ Gunther / European Pressphoto Agency)
Viral Marketing. It’s become the topic of the week (“it’s HOT!”), what with the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (or, for those in the know, ATHF) debacle in Boston. In case you hadn’t heard, New York-based marketing firm Interference, Inc.—known for their guerrilla marketing efforts—placed a number of electronic boards (similar to the classic children’s toy Light Brite) featuring characters from Cartoon Network’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” in so-called strategic places around the city to create a viral buzz about the show. Apparently a subway worker, not quite clear on the concept, mistook the “electronic device” for a bomb. Long story short, a large part of the city of Boston and its public transportation system were shut down while authorities “defused” the suspect devices.
Two weeks ago, in a parallel universe, 22-year old design student Todd Vanderlin “had just left Lucky’s lounge in South Boston when he spotted what looked like an alien glowing on the side of a bridge. He pulled out his digital camera, photographed the illuminated plastic figure, and posted the images on his blog,” so says boston.com.
Yeah, that’s right: two weeks ago.
Now, there’s no telling if the Lite-Brite-like thing in the subway was there for the two weeks (or longer?) that the one Mr. Vanderlin saw was, but you’ve got to wonder if the folks who identified the item in question as an explosive devise are really on their game and even on the lookout for real threats in a “post-9/11 world.” Oh yeah, did you hear that Boston was only one of ten—yep, count ’em—ten cities targeted in this campaign?
But back to the marketing. There are many questions we can ask about and—I’m guessing here—things we can learn about this real-world tragicomedy.
The news sites are talking about the legality of the [fill in the blank: “hoax,” “prank,” “stunt,” “misadventure,” etc], while the blogosphere and other (perhaps more thoughtful) media have delved into the deeper ethical questions. (Thursday’s Talk of the Nation committed considerable time to the topic.)
One thing’s for sure if you’re following any of this on the Web: there is a wide generation gap between the ages that see this endeavor as a kind of advertising message and those that see it as a threat. Duck and cover anyone?
Meanwhile, as they wait for their stories to unfold, the two “artists” who take responsibility for placing the devices in Boston can thankfully find some humor in the gravity of the situation they’re now in: During their arraignment they reportedly had difficulty keeping straight faces when Assistant Attorney General John Grossman described the items at the root of the mayhem as “bomb-like devices.” (They pleaded not guilty to charges of “placing a hoax device in a way that causes panic and disorderly conduct.”)
Good luck to them.
Meanwhile, we wholeheartedly engage in discourse about the unintended results of this unconventional type of marketing campaign and continue to poke around the edges of the discussion about original ways to market in a world that absorbs everything and changes by the nano-second.
Oh yeah, and in the category of “there’s no such thing as bad PR,” the current Ebay bid for one of those Lite-Brite things: $3,150.