In what may go down as one of the biggest marketing blunders in the history of the cable industry, a viral ad campaign for Turner Broadcasting’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force program sparked bomb scares in Boston Wednesday that forced local police, the FBI and the Coast Guard to shut down major highways and waterways.
Boston police arrested two Massachusetts men Wednesday night that had been hired by Interference Inc., a New York-based guerilla marketing firm contracted by Turner to promote a movie for its Aqua Teen Hunger Force series. The marketing firm had placed one-foot tall light boxes containing circuit boards and batteries, which depicted cartoon characters, including one character flipping passersby the bird.
The marketing stunt sent Turner executives into damage control mode late Wednesday, with TBS Inc. CEO Phil Kent issuing an apology. The stunt was a top story on broadcast and cable news programs Wednesday night and Thursday morning, and drew headlines worldwide, from China to Denmark.
Turner said it ordered Interference to pull the magnetic billboards from 10 cities where they had been placed during the last few weeks, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
“We appreciate the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company would, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible,” Kent said in a prepared statement. “As soon as we realized that an element of the campaign was being mistaken for something potentially dangerous, appropriate law enforcement officials were notified and through federal law enforcement channels, we identified the specific locations of the advertisements in all 10 cities in which they are posted.”
Even anchors at Cartoon Network sister channel CNN criticized the marketing ploy.
“In a post-9/11 world, what kind of a moron would think that that's a good idea, to scatter stuff around in places like Boston and other big cities with batteries attached to it,” CNN anchor Jack Cafferty said on the air Wednesday night.
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