Boston Hoax Raises Questions about Guerilla Marketing

Police recover what they thought were "bomb-like" devices from bridges and highways throughout Boston, devices that turned out to be ads for a late night cartoon show. Guests discuss guerilla marketing tactics.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Officials and many residents in Boston are furious today after the discovery of mysterious electronic devices shut down parts of that city yesterday. It turned out to be a publicity stunt. Earlier today, two men pleaded not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and placing a hoax device and were released on bail.

Dozens of one foot tall battery-powdered signs were found around the city, part of a campaign by the Cartoon Network to promote a show called "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and an upcoming movie that's based on that program. Boston police found the devices, most of which showed one of the cartoon characters in blue or white lights with his middle finger raised in the air, under bridges, on highway ramps and lampposts near Fenway Park, and they said they looked like bombs. Boston's mayor called it outrageous in a post-9/11 world. And in a statement, Turner Broadcasting, which owns the Cartoon Network, said we apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger.

Later this hour, Stolen Voices, young people's war diaries. But first, guerilla marketing. How does Boston compare to other marketing stunts, and after 9/11 is it over the line? Our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

We begin with Matt Britton, chief of brand development for Mr. Youth, a New York-based firm that specializes in college students and teen marketing. He joins us from our studios at our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. MATT BRITTON (Chief of Brand Development, Mr. Youth): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks. So the Cartoon Network has an awful lot of publicity today.

Mr. BRITTON: Absolutely, and they say that not all publicity is bad, but in this instance I think I beg to differ.

CONAN: So there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Mr. BRITTON: Absolutely. I think that, you know, there are some ways that you can do a guerilla stunt and have publicity in ways that you didn't intend it to be. But I think in this instance, I don't think anybody there is happy with the amount of buzz they're getting. Any time that you're putting people at risk and you're really disrupting, you know, the public, I don't think that any brand would want to be associated with such a thing.

CONAN: Yet in Boston we had at the - outside the courtroom where the bail hearing was held for the two men who are allegedly responsible for placing these bombs, some fans of the TV show gathered with signs saying 1-31-07, Never Forget, and Free Peter, the first name of one of the people who's involved in this stunt, there was a lot of mockery going on. Anybody under the age of 35, somebody said, would know instantly that this was a joke.

Mr. BRITTON: True, true. I mean I think that there was definitely no ill intent by Turner or the agency they hired that put something like this together. I think, you know, agencies have long engaged in grow-marketing in major cities. I think the mistakes that happened here is that they placed these objects, you know, in major transportation hubs within Boston, i.e., bridges and tunnels, and I think that's what really caused people to be scared.

However, what a lot of people aren't talking about is that these devices had supposed been in market for two to three weeks. So I think that sort of a tipping point went on where somebody noticed it, they told the police, and then more people called in after they saw it on the news. But in the nine other cities that these, you know, that the products were in, nobody even called in and there was, you know, not a peep to law enforcement.

CONAN: And I have to - this campaign was conducted by one of your competitors, correct?

Mr. BRITTON: Correct. They're a company that operates in the same space as we do.

CONAN: And I don't mean to cast any aspersions here, but if this were your campaign and you weren't getting any buzz after a couple or three weeks of placing these devices in several cities around the country, might not you be tempted to call and say, gee, maybe the police might want to investigate this?

Mr. BRITTON: No. I mean the one thing that I think our industry shares in common is that we never want to get the police involved, and certainly a lot of people were put at risk and really inconvenienced because of this. So there's ways to cause buzz, as I mentioned earlier, in ways unexpected than the original intent of the promotion. But I think in this instance, I don't think anybody's happy about the sort of buzz. Obviously you're going to get those fanatical fans that are going to, you know, say free the people who were arrested, and they're going to, you know, there's an underground following. And I guess if there's any good out of that, you know, that would be it. But I'm sure the network does not - is not happy about this at all because of the negative publicity here, you know, far outweighs any positives that could be derived from this.

CONAN: Yet the words "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" are on everyone's lips today, and this is not a show that's one of the top-rated programs on cable television. And this kind of publicity - you can't buy this kind of publicity.

Mr. BRITTON: Oh, true. I mean you can't deny the amount of impressions that they're getting from this campaign. But again, I think the fact that, you know, talking about the FBI and Homeland Security, I think in a post-9/11 world, I mean after what happened on 9/11, nobody wants to be associated with that. And in those same stories where the show is mentioned, you know, 9/11 is also mentioned. So I think that negative association, again, I think far outweighs it. But as I mentioned earlier, there are ways to derive good publicity when, you know, the media takes a spin on something that, you know, wasn't how it was originally intended.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on this conversation. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. You can send e-mail to us at talk@npr.org. Matt Britton is chief of brand development at Mr. Youth. And let's get David on the line, David calling us from Ellensburg in the state of Washington.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, I'm just curious by what degree of arrogance or twisted logic does a private entity assume they can appropriate private - I mean publicly financed spaces and structures for private enterprise. They just seem to assume that they can put their sign up anywhere they want on a public space. How did it get to that point?

CONAN: One of the alleged perpetrators said today, this was art, though he was supposedly only saying - talking about '70s haircuts after he emerged from court today. But anyway, Matt Britton?

Mr. BRITTON: Absolutely. I mean as a general rule, anytime you're going to use public properties, you'd probably go and try to pull a permit. If a permit was pulled, then, you know, local law enforcement officials would know right away that it is not a bomb, it's something's that part of a permitted promotional stunt. But evidently in this case, there was no permits pulled, which you know, was one of the causes of the confusion. So I agree with you.

CONAN: OK, David, thanks very much.

DAVID: You're welcome.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get - this is Nicole. Nicole's with us from St. Augustine, Florida.

NICOLE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure.

NICOLE: I just wanted to comment that the choice of words around the description of the device that was used to promote this activity being - characterizing it as an electronic device is a little bit of a misnomer. It's a - and I think it's reflective of a post-9/11 environment. You know, I - we're talking about Lite-Brites. They're children's toys with a target age of perhaps four to seven years of age.

CONAN: Yet they've got batteries and wires that use electricity.

NICOLE: They do. They do. But I think that when the public hears electronic device, they think something has been essentially rigged to reflect something that could be a bomb, and I think it's very different in its public portrayal, whether or not it's a child's toy, that, yes, is electronic in nature but is nevertheless intended for a small child to use.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you about that, Matt Britton. Is it possible that officials in Boston overreacted here?

Mr. BRITTON: Yeah, I - the last thing I want to do is comment on the Boston officials that are out there to really protect people and really take every measure and really leave no stone unturned in trying to protect people, so I completely respect that. On the same token, I can tell you with certainty that the agency behind this idea and the marketers behind this idea did not intend for this to be, you know, misinterpreted as a bomb. I think what they tried to do is do something different, really try to push the limits to appeal to a young target audience. But in doing so, I think they created a device which law enforcement officials, and I would think rightfully so, has to assume that it could be something that is dangerous.

Anytime you have wires coming out of something, you never know. I mean look at what's going on in airports right now, where they don't even let you bring gels, which is an innocent-looking device, into airports because terrorists have been known to create bombs out of gels, or may have the ability to do so. So I don't think law enforcement officials were in the wrong in any sense here. I think that I can tell you for certainly though that this was not intended at all to be a bomb. It is a very innocent-looking device, and I can tell you that for sure.

CONAN: OK, Nicole, thanks very much for the call.

NICOLE: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Fran Kelly, CEO and president of the Boston-based ad agency Arnold Worldwide; he joins us by phone from New York, where he happens to be. Thanks for taking the time today.

Mr. FRAN KELLY (CEO and President, Arnold Worldwide): Hey, it's my pleasure. I'm happy to be on.

CONAN: Is there some key element that Turner Broadcasting or this agency that did it for them in New York forgot which might have prevented this campaign from going awry?

Mr. KELLY: Well, I think, as was alluded to previously, I think there are two rules of thumb in viral marketing that I think they failed to do in this case. One thing that gets talked about a lot in the industry is having some identification of the company that a message is coming from somewhere in the viral messaging so that you're being honest and true about the people you're communicating with.

So experts that I've talked to have said that if there was some indication on there that was from the agency in New York or from Turner, this probably wouldn't have gotten out of hand the way that it did. And I think the second thing is when you're using public space as your caller questioned about, you do have an obligation to check in with the authorities.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KELLY: That didn't happen in this case, either. And so I think there were kind of two rules of viral marketing - if there are any rules in such a new industry - that got violated here that led to a fiasco.

CONAN: There was a not dissimilar incident in Los Angeles, I guess, last year when the film "Mission: Impossible III" came out, and there were music boxes put in a bunch of newspaper boxes, that when you bought a copy of the L.A. Times, you opened it up and it played the theme from "Mission: Impossible." Again, these are electronic devices. They're battery-powered, and some people freaked out. And even though that got a lot of publicity, it did not do a lot of good for the movie.

Mr. KELLY: No, and this is the challenge that marketers face. You know, we're in a very noisy world, and it isn't easy to get your brand or your company noticed. And marketers are paid to push the envelope and to get companies noticed. But you have a responsibility to do it in a positive manner that, you know, makes the company and the world a little better.

And clearly, in this case, they went over a line. And I happen to be up high in the Prudential Tower yesterday in Boston, and I first heard about the first bomb on Fox News. And within a hour or two, I could see traffic stopped all around the city and helicopters hovering on all sides of town, and, you know, this went too far and clearly turned into a disaster.

CONAN: I wonder, though, if you were - if this, again, it was your agency, would you call in the campaign manager and say you were just shocked - shocked that whatever he did got this cartoon show leading the network news on - and on the front page of every newspaper in the country?

Mr. KELLY: Well, it is a conundrum in marketing. As much as this is a disaster, I'm sure many more people know about the Cartoon Network 11 to 5 AM programming, and, you know, there will be some benefit that comes out of it. But I wouldn't be surprised if somebody has to pay a price at some point, because I believe the city of Boston isn't exaggerating when they say, you know, they probably expended $500,000 of taxpayers' money yesterday trying to clean this mess up.

CONAN: Half a million bucks is cheap for that kind of advertising.

Mr. KELLY: Well, you never know. I'll tell you, and an interesting part of the story - being a 50-year-old CEO - at first I thought, oh, this is outrageous. How could anyone have done it? And I happen to go downstairs in our agency, where we have a lot of young people in their 20s who live there life on the Web. And I'll be darned if we don't have one of these devices in the Arnold offices in Boston, and our - one of our young guys spotted it a couple of weeks ago, took pictures of it, put it - put the information about the campaign out on the Web, and he knew exactly what it was and - so anyway, we have a great memento of this disaster at Arnold in Boston.

CONAN: Fran Kelly, thanks for the time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. KELLY: My pleasure.

CONAN: Fran Kelly, CEO and president of the ad agency Arnold Worldwide, also the author of "The Breakaway Brand."

We're talking about guerilla marketing and the publicity stunt that tied up much of Boston yesterday. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. E-mail: talk@npr.org. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

After the incident in Boston yesterday - where the discovery of mysterious devices caused much of the city to be shut down - we're talking with marketers about whether or not some tactics go too far. If you want to see what some of these devices found in Boston look like, you can check out the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

Our guest is Matt Britton. He's chief of brand development for Mr. Youth, a new York-based firm that specializes in college student and teen marketing. Of course, you're welcome to join the conversation. How far is too far when it comes to marketing? 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Scott. Scott's with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

SCOTT (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I'm in an interesting spot here, because I sit on both sides of the fence. I work in marketing as a professional, but I also am planning commissioner with my local municipality. And you mentioned earlier the notion that things are regulated like this, and quite honestly, planners like myself have had to enact legislation to try and control what I'm going to call clutter - the pervasive, sort of invasive notion of guerilla marketing that pollutes our environment, so to speak, visually.

And while I am a big fan of creative ways to market a brand, I find myself more and more falling on the side of the notion of pollution visually in our environment. And it seems in this day and age nothing is off limits, and we only reign things in once they get out of control.

CONAN: Scott, give us some examples of some of the things you've encountered there in Grand Rapids.

SCOTT: The latest spat of it has been with mobile storage units. And we find that these companies that provide, you know, basically, a large wooden box, they will park them in people's driveways. They'll park them in parking lots. They'll park them along the side of the road, in places - as it was it said before - are not public spaces for display. They're not contracted, you know. Suddenly, you find the invasion of the pods, the personal, on-demand storage, or whatever it might be.

CONAN: And they're there, basically, as advertising.

SCOTT: Yeah, and people are literally littering the sides of the streets with them, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I have to ask you, Matt Britton - I mean, this must be part of your thought process when you're looking at devising a campaign.

Mr. BRITTON: Absolutely. I mean, what a lot of brands are finding is that it's harder and harder to reach consumers - especially younger consumers - via traditional media, i.e., television and radio. So in their effort to constantly come up with new and inventive ways to reach, you know, a younger demographic, they're really pushing the envelope.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRITTON: And sometimes that can result in clutter in municipalities and cities and on college campuses. So I think the trick is to do something that really is enlightening to the consumer, that surprises the consumer in a nice way without really interrupting what they're trying to do in their daily lives. And that's really walking the fine line and coming up with effective, you know, guerilla marketing tactics.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Scott, thanks for the call.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's go to - this is Thomas, Thomas with us from Dearborn, Michigan.

THOMAS (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi.

THOMAS: I just wanted to say that I think one thing that's being overlooked is the show. The content of the show itself is fairly anti-establishment, and is sort of opposed to filling out forms and following the rules. And that the kind of media attention that it's garnering is that it did break these kind of rules in its advertising campaign. And I see this as only sort of playing into the hand of the creators of the show. It may be bad for the network, but it's certainly going to get a lot of support for the kind of programming these creative people put on.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Matt Britton, as you say, Turner might be upset, even the Cartoon Network might be upset. "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" producers, are they upset?

Mr. BRITTON: Well, I think your caller raises a great point. I think the show is certainly counterculture, and I think that really feeds into the people who you were talking about outside the courthouse. You know, so this sort of response can be great, but it went to the extent - if there was one person that called in and a minor story in Boston, I think, you know, that the producers might be happy.

And in the end of the day, this might yield higher ratings for the show. But you had law enforcement officials blowing up these devices. Somebody could have lost an arm when they blew up one of these devices. So I don't think any brand or any respectable marketer ever wants to put people in danger, and I think, unfortunately, that was the end result of this here.

So, you know, I'd be very surprised to hear anybody at Turner secretly happy about this. They're a respectable company, and, you know, I think that while sometimes you can get a campaign that really is amazing and really has tremendous buzz in this day of YouTube and MySpace, I don't think this is really one of them. I did get buzz, but I think the connotations - the homeland security and terrorism - are ones that every brand would love to avoid.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. If you were the Turner Network - if you were advising the Turner Network, would you suggest that they cut a check for half a million dollars today?

Mr. BRITTON: You know, that's a great question. If I were advising crisis communications to the chairman of the Turner Network, I would have had him on the first plane to go to Boston. I would have had him issue a public apology with a check in hand for an amount to the city. And lastly, do something good for the city, maybe do something the first responders or people in Boston who do stick their neck out everyday to protect people and really address the issue right away. Because what happens in instances like this, the longer you stay quiet and the longer you don't issue a statement, the more negative PR starts to build around it. You really need to be proactive.

CONAN: And it's going to go on, given that people are being brought up on charges. And they're looking into the idea of maybe indicting somebody who is a little further up the food chain than the people who - the two young men who placed these devices, allegedly.

Mr. BRITTON: Absolutely. And just, you know, the way that our industry works is an agency pitches a concept to a client. In this instance, the client was Turner. They buy off on the concept. And then when the agency goes to execute the concept, in most cases what they'll do is they'll go hire independent contractors which they'll call street teams, that actually go out and execute and beat their feet on the street. These are usually full-time employees of companies, but part-time contractors. They could be waiters or actresses or models at night, and during the day they go out and execute on these guerilla marketing campaigns.

So what probably was the case here is that the people in Boston that were executing it were just extremely overzealous, and they kind of went out of the way to make the campaign go good in their mind. But obviously, that wasn't really the end result. And that's probably why you didn't hear about this in the other nine markets. So these individuals are just independent contractors. They're not even full-time employees of the agency that hired them, most likely.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thomas, thanks for the call.

THOMAS: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go to - this is Chad. Chad's calling from Ann Arbor in Michigan. A lot of calls from Michigan today.

CHAD (Caller): Yeah, we apparently are into the guerilla stuff.

CONAN: Must be.

CHAD: I'm actually a bit concerned about this reaction, because guerilla art has a very long history in protest movements. And a lot of times when mainstream media are not giving attention to something, sometimes guerilla art is a way of getting a lot of attention to causes that are not frequently covered. I'm thinking about when I was in college, it was during the time when there was a lot of talk about sweatshops and shoe companies, and some of us used to go around chalking buildings with sort of a slash through the Nike logo.

And during that time, I think it was very clear that people knew we were talking about the sweatshop concerns around the Nike corporation. But what I'm concerned about is that if you get a bunch of people going around and deciding to do some public art that talks about some social cause, then it's going to be suddenly perceived as terrorism.

CONAN: Well, again, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is a television program. It's not a cause.

CHAD: Oh, quite the case. But I think that sometimes in guerilla art used in protest, you're causing discomfort and you're causing things that don't necessarily look normal. And so that is a way that a lot of - I know that I've been part of protest groups in the past where we've used this type of art to try to...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHAD: ...to try to sort of get people to say come on over to us, and then we'll give them some information about a cause.

CONAN: And also, you should point out that chalk drawings wash off the next time it rains. But let me ask Matt Britton. I mean, are - does this sort of reaction impinge on the possibility of guerilla art and free expression as political protest if we crack down on this sort of thing?

Mr. BRITTON: Well, first of all, I think it's important to point out that the overwhelming majority of protests that happen in major cities are permitted in advance. The police have to be aware of it. They shut down streets for it. So this does go through municipalities.

Going back to the point about being able to write chalk on walls. Whether you're a private owner or you're in a public sector, nobody wants you going and defacing their property. And nobody wants to have to pay to have their maintenance people wipe it off.

And not all chalk does wipe off, so I would actually disagree with that. I mean, I'm all for public expression, and being a marketer, I'm all for creative ways of public expression. But when you're defacing public property or you're causing, you know, civil disorder, I think then, you know, then you're totally causing more harm than good, irregardless of what your message is. And then lastly, this is a corporate entity. This is not a nonprofit trying to push, you know, a cause for good, and I think that, you know, that's another important point to note out.

CONAN: Hmm. Chad, thanks.

CHAD: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get Josh on the line, Josh calling from Atlanta.

JOSH (Caller): Yes, I work in the sales industry, and I've got a - I'm 21, I'm young. And everybody my age knows "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," and I think it's a brilliant idea because not only are you going - if you don't know them, you're going to want to know about them. For instance, in my area, I've got about two or 300 dealers, and if they don't carry a particular product that I'm a rep for, I will put that product catalog around the store, just in different little places, so the customer, you know, will see it and ask about it and they'll become dealers. I think it's absolutely brilliant.

CONAN: So if you were in - if you're in marketing, you would say I'll try this idea next year?

JOSH: It's pretty ingenious. I think if you - you know, especially sales-wise, because the people who don't know "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" are immediately going to want to know about them, and they're going to tune into the show. And it's going to make way more money than it's going to cost in the long run, in my opinion.

CONAN: And again, there was that remark, you know, everybody under 35 would recognize what all of this was. But don't you risk alienating everybody over 35?

JOSH: Well, I mean don't you want to watch the show now?

CONAN: I don't stay up that late.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOSH: Well, you know, that's a different situation, but most people are going to stay up that late and watch the show, maybe just that one time, but just that one time will pay off.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Again, Matt Britton, there is that perverse aspect to this. There is all of that publicity.

Mr. BRITTON: Oh, there's no question that the silver lining in all this for Turner is going to be that it will definitely increase, you know, overall awareness and viewership. But you know, as I said many times already, I think there's a lot of great ways to create buzz without involving the Department of Homeland Security, which is what happened here.

So you know, guerilla marketing can be highly effective, and I think this program has all the great makings of a great guerrilla marketing campaign, you know, minus some of the missteps they took to really cause, you know, public fear.

CONAN: Josh, thanks for the call. Appreciate it. Here's an e-mail we got from Emily in Laramie, Wyoming.

If one wanted to set up a bomb in the city of Boston, then I don't think they would want it to look like a bomb. What better way to make it look like a toy? It seems like the police force did the right thing.

Mr. BRITTON: Absolutely. I mean I'm not a law enforcement, you know, professional by any means, but you know, I respect the work that they do to protect the citizens of this country. And I think that you really can never be too sure in this day and age to try to protect people. And I think that's all that they were doing yesterday.

CONAN: Matt Britton, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. BRITTON: Thanks for your time.

CONAN: Matt Britton is chief of brand development for Mr. Youth, which is a New York-based marketing agency, and he joined us today from our bureau in New York.

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