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What Was Turner Thinking?

Executives at Turner Broadcasting System said they were only trying to get the attention of Cartoon Network’s target audience: Young men.

Its version of a carrot on a stick: A series of blinking light boards that it affixed to buildings, highway overpasses, subway-station walls and other surfaces in 10 cities across the country. The lights formed the outline of one of the network’s cartoon characters. And that Mooninite seemed to be flipping the bird to onlookers and passers-by.

The intended message was: Cartoon’s programming is cool. Instead, Turner’s guerilla marketing campaign became too hot to handle in Boston, where commuters mistook the light boards for explosive devices. The incident nearly brought Beantown to a halt last Wednesday, as police, the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard shut down highways and waterways in and around the city.


The first device that was found was detonated by a bomb squad. The confusion sparked worldwide attention, from China to Denmark; and outrage from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick for the waste of emergency resources and anxiety wrought.

Turner lost face, but may have won in the end. Even though executives insist they didn’t intend to spark an uproar with the guerilla campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the series featuring anthropomorphic fast food items, the company nonetheless gained tens of millions of dollars in free publicity for Cartoon Network and its late-night Adult Swim block, which is available in more than 91 million U.S. cable and satellite homes.

Its marginal cost? A $1 million payment to Boston for its troubles, it looked like at week’s end.

“The unfortunate upside of this is people are talking about it,” said Michael Benson, executive vice president of marketing at ABC Entertainment.

“While it probably didn’t work out the way they had expected it to, it’s still working on some level,” said Benson, who is also chairman of marketing and design association Promax/BDA.

The aggregate value of the publicity Turner reaped from the bomb scare and media coverage could range “between tens of millions and hundreds of millions” of dollars, said Michael Levine, author of Guerilla P.R.: How You Can Wage An Effective Publicity Campaign … Without Going Broke. After all, pretty much every daily newspaper of any size in America likely ran one or two stories on the TV marketing campaign that bombed — coverage that Hunger Force never would have received otherwise.

TV networks have pursued guerilla marketing campaigns for more than a decade and have focused more on the tactic in recent years, as viewers have become harder to reach with the wide availability of ad-skipping digital video recorders, personal computers, gaming systems and other entertainment.

Networks ranging from Discovery Channel to Court TV to Hallmark Channel regularly place advertising in laundromats, bars and restaurants, with some companies such as cable rival Verizon Communications buying ads on dry cleaning bags.

Even restrooms aren’t off limits, as attendees at last year’s National Show in Atlanta found out. At that convention, startup men’s channel MavTV placed motion-activated pucks in men’s room urinals at the Georgia World Congress Center. When activated, the puck spoke up, urging its unzipped audience to “Watch MavTV, a man-sized network.”

The Turner campaign was carried out by New York marketing firm Interference, which tries to execute “viral” campaigns that produce lots of word-of-mouth buzz.

Law-enforcement officers collected 38 of the devices in Boston. And Interference was directed by Turner to pull the electronic billboards from nine other cities where they had been placed in the last month, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia, according to Turner senior vice president of corporate communications Shirley Powell.

Two Boston area residents, Sean Stevens, 28, and Peter Berdovsky, 29, who were hired by Interference to place signs throughout the Boston area, were arrested.

And Turner itself was tight-lipped. Powell would not divulge which executive or executives had hired Interference, came up with the campaign concept or OK’d the idea. When asked who at Turner led the campaign, Powell would only say that the “Adult Swim marketing department” was involved in the effort.

Dennis Adamovich oversees marketing at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim as senior vice president of marketing. Powell refused requests to interview Adamovich. But Adamovich is known to look for creative uses of technology and materials in marketing campaigns for Cartoon Network programs.

“Our goal with any Adult Swim ad campaign is to present something highly creative and completely unexpected,” Adamovich said in a Nov. 30 announcement of a new technology called GlowSkin, which infuses animation in static billboards. GlowSkin is a technology similar to that used in the Mooninite case, but wasn’t involved in the campaign, Powell said.

Powell declined to comment on a report in The Boston Globe on Friday that Turner had agreed to pay $1 million to Boston authorities to compensate for the law-enforcement response to the bomb scare. She would only say that Turner, which hired outside legal counsel and public-relations firms to guide it through the incident, was still reviewing its options.

Turner Broadcasting System CEO Phil Kent also issued a written apology last Wednesday. “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. Interference also posted an apology on its Web site.

Boston officials were adamant last week that they should be paid for the debacle.

“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,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said last Wednesday.

ABC’s Benson said guerilla campaigns can be very effective. In 2004, ABC placed 10,000 bottles on beaches to pitch primetime series Lost. Each contained letters that said, “I’m Lost. Come find me on ABC.”

Benson said ABC also hired cleanup crews to collect the bottles at the end of each day, looking to prevent criticism from environmentalists.

ABC’s marketing department held a meeting last Thursday to discuss the Turner incident, said Benson, and executives agreed they would carefully review future guerilla-marketing campaigns.

“It’s important for every network to make sure that you have a clear process in place so you’re covered, and to ask the question, what could this do, and make sure you look at the pros and cons of what you’re trying to accomplish,” Benson said.


Char Beales, president of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, said the misunderstanding with government and law enforcement officials could have been averted. “I believe most marketing and PR agencies in our business are smarter than to stage publicity stunts like this [Turner] one without working through the proper channels first,” she said. “We live in a hyper-sensitive world now and we should always keep that in mind.”

Turner’s marketing stunt should be viewed as a “cautionary tale,” said Levine.

“I’ve been working in Hollywood for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything so stupid. I can’t imagine what was going through the minds of the idiots that approved this idea in a post-9/11 world,” Levine said Thursday.

Levine suggested that Turner officials should move quickly to compensate Boston authorities, and look to put the incident behind them. “Write the checks today, pay the money and put a system in place to make sure it never happens again.”